South Sudanese vote en masse

Filed on January 10, 2011
South Sudanese vote en masse

Men grinning and waving, women singing and dancing, south Sudanese dressed in their finest formed massive queues on Sunday to vote in a landmark referendum expected to create the world’s newest state.

Organisers complained that the queues were too long and that women and the elderly were given no preference on the first day of the seven-day vote.

Thousands of voters had begun forming up in orderly sex-segregated lines from soon after midnight, eager to be among the first to have their say on whether the impoverished south should finally break away from rule by Khartoum, ending five decades of conflict between north and south.

When the polls finally opened at 8am, the excitement was electric. Each time the next vote was inserted in the ballot box, women ululated in celebration.

Southern leaders had urged voters to come out en masse on the first day. The 2005 peace deal requires a turnout of at least 60 per cent for the referendum to be valid. The outcome will then be decided by simple majority.

A few voters wore their opinions on their chests with T-shirts demanding independence. Most donned the Western suits and brightly coloured floral dresses normally reserved for church in this largely Christian region but they showed no less enthusiasm for separation from the Muslim, mainly Arab north.

While the first day of voting proceeded generally peacefully, an official said clashes between renegade militiamen and south Sudanese troops disrupted voting in part of the key oil Unity state, which abuts the north-south border

“There has been some fighting because of certain militiamen but I am assured that the situation has been contained,” said the organising commission number two, Chan Reec. “I am optimistic that this will not impact the voting process,” he added.

Reec, who had earlier in the day been effusive about the massive turnout, later appealed for more consideration to be accorded to women and the elderly. “The queues were too long and no preference was offered for the women and elders,” Reec told a news conference.

“I would appeal to our traditions of respect towards women to offer them priority if they have toddlers or small children,” he said.

Polls had been scheduled to close at 5pm but all of the polling stations visited by AFP in the regional capital Juba were staying open to deal with the huge backlog of eager voters. Some 3.75 million people are registered to vote in the south and around 117,000 in north Sudan, the majority of them in capital Khartoum. Emigres were also able to vote in eight countries abroad.

The independence referendum is a key plank of the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war in which some two million people were killed and another four million displaced.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was among the first to cast his ballot in the regional capital Juba. “This is the historic moment the people of south Sudan have been waiting for,” Kiir said, holding up his hand to show the indelible ink that demonstrated he had voted.

US envoys Scott Gration and John Kerry as well as Hollywood star George Clooney watched as he cast his ballot at a polling station set up at the memorial to late rebel leader John Garang in the regional capital Juba.

It was Garang who signed the 2005 peace agreement that provided for Sunday’s referendum, shortly before his death in a mysterious helicopter crash on his way back from Uganda.

His widow Rebecca said: “I have mixed feelings about this day for I know that my husband did not die in vain and I know that freedom has a price,” she said.

Yar Mayon, who grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, said: “I came here in the early morning because I wanted to show just how much I wanted to vote.”

As the sun rose, another voter, Wilson Santino said: “This is a new dawn because we vote for our freedom.”

After touring a polling station with ex-US president Jimmy Carter, former UN chief Kofi Annan said: “It is important that the energy and enthusiasm lead to solid results that are accepted by everybody.”

Carter, who held talks with northern leaders in Khartoum before heading to Juba for the vote, said he believed the prospects for the referendum to result in new violence had greatly receded in recent days.

“Now there is a general acceptance in the north and south that if a vote for independence should be cast — and we don’t know that yet — then it will be accepted peacefully.”

Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, an army man who led the north’s war effort against the south for a decade and a half before signing the 2005 peace deal, has said he will respect the outcome of the vote if it is “free and transparent.”

Results are not expected until early next month because of the immense logistical problems involved in collecting ballot boxes in a vast, war-ravaged region which has just 40 kilometres of tarmac road, most of it in Juba. —

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