Wednesday 17 January 2018

South Sudanese jubilant as they vote on new state

Actor and activist George Clooney, in Southern Sudan's major
city, Juba, yesterday to highlight the region's independence
referendum. Photo: Reuters
Actor and activist George Clooney, in Southern Sudan's major city, Juba, yesterday to highlight the region's independence referendum. Photo: Reuters

Maggie Fick in Juba

WOMEN broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots yesterday in a week-long independence referendum likely to create the world's newest nation, five years after the end of a brutal civil war.

The mainly Christian south is expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa's largest country in two.

The president of Sudan, who has been indicted for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, has promised to let go of the oil-rich south after his government tried for years to derail the vote. His unlikely acceptance of the seemingly inevitable loss comes as the two regions face an interwoven economic future. Most of Sudan's oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north.

Yesterday however, there was jubilation among those who had lived through years of fighting. "This is the historic moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for," said southern Sudan president Salva Kiir as he cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd.

Sudan activist George Clooney was among those watching Mr Kiir vote.

Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, among them Mawien Mabut, a 36-year-old soldier. "I have seen the inside of war so we have to stop the war now. We are very happy the Arabs are going away," he said.

Standing near him was Rachel Akech (30). The tall, pregnant woman has traditional scars on her face and her lower teeth removed, a rite of passage in the Dinka tribe.

"I couldn't even sleep I've been thinking about this day for so long," she said. "I am ready to vote."

This week's referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the two-decade civil war between the north and south. Voters can mark one of two choices -- a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity. The illustrations are necessary because only 15pc of the region's 8.7 million people can read.

Southern Sudan is among the world's poorest regions, and the UN says a 15-year-old girl there has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.

Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. The fiercest period of fighting was the two-decade span that began in the early 1980s and ended with the peace agreement.

Violence

More than a million people headed north to escape the violence, and about 3,800 war orphans, known as the 'Lost Boys of Sudan' resettled in the United States. Some of those orphans will join thousands of Sudanese at polling sites set up in eight US cities.

About 117,000 southerners who live in the north also registered to vote, but the scenes at polling stations in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, were far removed from the joyous scenes in the south.

Many southerners fear retribution from northerners if they vote. A large billboard in downtown Khartoum featured a picture of President Omar al-Bashir dressed in feathered southern headgear with the words: "No to separation, together, together."

Sudan will lose a third of its land, nearly a quarter of its population and much of its oil if the south secedes. Khartoum's only consolation will be that the pipelines to get the product to market all run through its territory.

Irish Independent

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