Officials in Southern Sudan have expressed satisfaction four days into registration for a landmark referendum due in January, in which voters are likely to opt to transform the semi-autonomous territory into an independent state.
Turnout among Southern Sudanese in the north of the country has been low, however, while frustration is growing over delays in organizing a separate ballot in the contested border region of Abyei.
Delays in organizing the southern referendum have also led to fears that that vote will not start on 9 January as scheduled. But organizers seemed undaunted after registration got under way in most of the 2,600 centres in the south.
The process has been smooth, and we were pleased to see that 98 percent of the centres in the south opened on time successfully on the first day,” said Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRRC).
The referendum is the climax of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war between north and south, a conflict that claimed some two million lives.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the referendums for the south and Abyei -which is also due to vote on 9 January on whether to join Southern Sudan or retain its special status in the north - were a “moment of critical importance”.
“To ensure that the referendum is conducted in an orderly fashion and that the Sudanese people peacefully accept the outcome, it is imperative that the process be credible and transparent, and that it reflect the aspirations of the population,” Ban said in a 16 November speech in New York.
Reec said his team was working hard to overcome some logistical challenges.
“We have had difficulty in some remoter areas with communication with the centres,” he said.
Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN
|The name is Kiir, Salva Kiir|
“We have therefore made sure that satellite telephones are being delivered as quickly as possible to these areas to ensure they can keep in close contact.”
The 17-day process concludes on 1 December.
Those on the streets of the southern capital Juba said they were frustrated with the long queues but said they were pleased with the general progress of the registration process.
“This is working better than when people registered for the elections earlier this year,” said Mary Nyok, a mother waiting with her young child to register.
“The time it takes is long, but there is excitement at taking part in this referendum,” said Nhial Deng, a student in Juba.
“It is such an important piece of history in the destiny of the people of the south.”
The process has also been largely smooth outside Juba, Southern Sudan’s capital, according to officials.
Sapana Abuyi, deputy governor of Western Equatoria, dispelled concerns that the Ugandan-led Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] might disrupt the process in parts of the state close to Democratic Republic of Congo, where the rebel group has been particularly active.
“We are pleased that the registration has opened successfully, and that the LRA have not disrupted the process,” said Abuyi.
Local media reports claimed that registration in Tonj East County of Warrap State was slow after cattle raiding before centres opened scared people away, but this could not be verified independently.
Slow progress in north
Southerners living in the north - estimated to number anywhere between 500,000 and two million - are also able to vote, as are those living abroad (see box).
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|James Nyuol Majok, a 27-year-old environmental studies student who in 1998 fled clashes in Southern Sudan’s Warrap State, was among tens of thousands of refugees expected to register in Kenya.
"If South Sudan becomes an independent state, I will go back there and teach. People of Sudan need to be aware of human rights. They are not, and this is why the government in Khartoum has demolished us for years. Our illiteracy and ignorance played a great role in my people's history."
"I hope the referendum will take place on time. I take the pressure of the international community and the media as a guarantee but I am not so sure this will work for Abyei."
"Do I hope South Sudan will become independent? Yes, I do. Will this happen in a peaceful way, I really don't know"
"Also, I fear for southerners who do not have official documents proving their origins and for those in Kenya who cannot reach the seven registration stations. Registration sounds like an easy process but it could prove complicated".
"But unlike times when thousands of people were killed every day [during the war] and there was no one there to talk about it, whatever happens during and after this referendum, the world will know".
However, turnout in the 165 centres there has been far lower, said Aleu Garang Aleu, the referendum bureau spokesman.
"We have reports from the people there that they have a fear of intimidation," Aleu said.
"The reports from the north say the numbers going to register are far lower than in the south, where the turnout has been high."
Southerners in the north said they were staying away from the centres because they feared rigging by Khartoum.
“We want our voice heard, but we don’t believe that the vote for the referendum in the north will be free and fair,” said John Wani, a student, speaking by telephone from Khartoum.
“I and my friends believe that since we are in the north it is better not to take part in the referendum so as to make sure the vote is a legitimate ballot… I know many other southerners here in Khartoum believe the same.”
Frustration in Abyei
There is also concern over the contested border region of Abyei where southerners are registering for the southern referendum - but not for the ballot relating to their own territory, also due to take place on 9 January.
Leaders of north and south remain deadlocked over who can vote in the Abyei referendum, with the south’s ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) accusing the north’s National Congress Party (NCP) of deliberately blocking progress.
“Abyei is calm and people are registering for the southern referendum,” said Arop Madut Arop, an SPLM member of parliament for the area in the southern assembly.
“But the people are growing more and more frustrated at the delays in the Abyei Referendum Commission, and they are demanding it is formed so the vote there can progress as it is laid down in the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement].”