Carnival spirit as Sudan prepares for foundation of a new nation

The Times of London
Juba, Southern Sudan

Millions of people began voting on Sunday morning (Jack Hill for The Times)
Millions of people began voting on Sunday morning (Jack Hill for The Times)

By dawn Ajang Kornilo had been queueing for five hours. “Now is my time to fight for freedom. With this card I join the struggle,” the 23-year-old said, holding up the registration card that allows him to vote in a poll that is expected to divide Sudan.

“Today we are finishing the struggle that was fought by our brothers and fathers for all those years,” said Mr Kornilo. Across southern Sudan millions of people began voting at 8am yesterday to choose unity or secession in a referendum likely to lead to the world’s newest nation.

Wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, Salva Kiir, the southern President and a former guerrilla general, cast the first ballot at a polling station in Juba, the capital-in-waiting.

“This is the historic moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for,” Mr Kiir said. George Clooney, the Hollywood actor and supporter of peace in Sudan, was among the dignitaries gathered to witness the start of the referendum.

Mr Kiir had chosen to vote at the mausoleum of John Garang, the former rebel leader and father of southern independence who was killed in a helicopter crash six months after a north-south peace deal was signed in 2005, ending decades of civil war.

“I believe Dr John, and all who died with him, are with us today and I assure them that they have not died in vain,” said Mr Kiir. The waiting voters cheered.

Standing a few yards from her husband’s grave, Rebecca Garang said: “Today I know that my husband did not die in vain. But that freedom has a price, a heavy price. We will continue to remember our people who died for this country, we will never forget.”

About two million people died during two decades of civil war that ended six years ago with a peace agreement that paved the way for today’s vote. For independence to be recognised, at least 60 per cent of the 3.9 million registered voters must cast their ballots in the next week and more than half must mark a thumbprint by the open palm that symbolises secession.

There is no doubting the enthusiasm for independence and in Juba a carnival atmosphere greeted the opening of polls. Alison Adislau, a member of the Mati traditional dance troupe wore bells on his ankles and stomped his feet to a drumbeat as others shimmied and sang. “The meaning of the song is ‘Bye-bye Bashir, bye-bye Khartoum’,” he told The Times.

Near by dozens of tall, slim Dinka men wrapped in leopard-print material with white ash smeared on their faces leapt in the air, thrusting the flag of South Sudan towards the sky. “Independence means standing on our own,” said Yeka Seme, 23, a student. “Being controlled by someone is like being a slave,” he said.

At a primary school, the former US President Jimmy Carter, who is in Sudan to lead a group observing the poll, said that he had seen “enormous crowds in every place” and that the vote was “calm and peaceful”. Mr Carter added that in a meeting with Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, he had been reassured that Khartoum would accept the result of the ballot. But not everyone is taking part.

Late on Saturday evening barges arrived at the port in Juba carrying more than 1,000 southerners returning from Khartoum. Among them was Robert Chachu, a father of seven, who said that he had registered to vote in Khartoum and hoped to do so in Juba, but electoral officials said that this was impossible.

“It is unfortunate they have missed out,” said Chan Reec Madut, the Chief Justice of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau. He compared the 150,000 people who have returned south since late October to football fans who can celebrate the spectacle without taking part. They will be disappointed but others are missing out with potentially more dangerous consequences. In Abyei, a fertile, oil-producing region, a parallel referendum on whether it will become part of the north or the south has been shelved after talks on voter eligibility collapsed.

In a reminder of the fragility of peace in this unstable region, at least one person died and others were injured in fighting between armed Ngok Dinka and Misseriya tribesmen close to Abyei town on Saturday. Clooney, who has just returned from Abyei said: “If you underestimate the importance of that area, all of this can fall apart, all of this joy and happiness can turn into the bloodiest war of the 21st century.”

Map of Africa unlikely to be further redrawn after this secession
Southern Sudan’s secession is inevitable, and by the evidence of yesterday’s vote it will be secured with a landslide majority.

When southern Sudan formally becomes “South Sudan” in six months’ time, there will be two new countries on the map of the world, in deed if not in name.

A newborn and desperately poor one in the south, and a diminished one in the north.

That diminution, particularly through the loss of a resource-rich region like southern Sudan, which has up to four fifths of the country’s oil deposits, is something other African governments fear with good reason.

African nations were brought together by colonial rulers who ignored, or knew little about, fundamental ethnic ties and barriers and it is hard to think of a modern state on the continent without separatist tendencies.

In Sudan’s western region of Darfur, the Delta in Nigeria, the Cabinda enclave in Angola, the northern Sahara in Niger and the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, militants are demanding self-rule and the resources beneath their feet. Elsewhere others are calling for independence. But a further redrawing of Africa’s map is unlikely. The last new country to emerge was Eritrea in 1993 and it has been an oppressive failure at home and a meddling troublemaker abroad.

Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region of northwestern Somalia, has had its calls for recognition ignored for 20 years, despite being yoked to the world’s pre-eminent failed state.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that ended Sudan’s north-south civil war was unprecedented in the degree of international support that it generated. But countries and international bodies that will clamour to recognise South Sudan are in no hurry to welcome another atomisation of the continent.

Integration is a more powerful tool than separation for bringing much-needed economic growth and political stability, linking together individually poor countries into larger, richer markets. Although many remain, for now, more impressive in name than in reality, regional blocs in South, East and West Africa are growing in stature and strength and they offer a clearer vision of the future than secessionist movements.