9 January 2011
In John Garang memorial park in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the mood is one of celebration. A group of drummers beat out a rhythm on tall African drums, while locals dance in a circle around them. Nearby, members of a traditional dance group, dressed in yellow and green T-shirts and woven hats, dance and sing while one of them holds aloft the South Sudanese flag. Across the park, hundreds stand patiently in snaking queues, waiting to cast their vote in a referendum that will shape their country’s future.
Although a week was set aside to complete the ballot, the first voters arrived soon after midnight to wait for the 8am opening of the first day of the polls. Those now casting their vote in the heat of the early afternoon sun have been waiting since before dawn. “I’ve been queuing since 4am,” says Peter, who has travelled all the way from Canada to cast his vote. “Now it’s time to go home.”
No one is complaining about the wait though. Despite temperatures pushing 40 degrees Celsius, voters stand smilingly in line, relishing their chance to influence the future of the southern part of Africa’s largest country. “I’m very happy,” says one voter, beaming with delight having cast his ballot.
It is six years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) set plans for the referendum in motion, but South Sudan’s struggle for its own identity dates back to 1956, when Sudan gained independence from colonial rule. The civil war that ensued between those with largely Christian and indigenous beliefs in the south and their Muslim countrymen to the north claimed an estimated 2 million lives. For the 4 million citizens of South Sudan that registered in December to participate in the polls, a few hours’ wait seems a small price to pay for the opportunity to make history.
“We are tired of this conflict,” says Peter. “We were fighting for nearly 50 years. But now God has made it possible for a choice to be given to the people. This is the choice we are making today.”
Inside the polling tents, voters place an inky fingerprint in one of two boxes: alongside a picture of two clasped hands, representing unity, or beside a single upheld palm, symbolising separation. Having dropped their ballot paper into the box, many wave to the waiting crowds or hold their arms aloft in celebration. One kisses a small paper South Sudanese flag he is carrying.
Under the terms of the CPA, the governments of both north and south were asked to do all they could to make viable the option of unity. But while the official declaration of the results of the referendum will not be made until 15 February, there is an overwhelming sense of a decision already made.
On arrival in Juba airport, travellers are greeted by a banner welcoming them to the world’s 193rd country, while roadside billboards urge a vote for separation to bring “dignity” and “development” to South Sudan.
One banner reads simply “Bye Bye Khartoum”. The campaign for unity is notable only by its absence.
Inside memorial park there is no sign of anyone voting against independence. A group of four young men, who ask to have their photo taken to celebrate casting their vote pose with hands upheld in the symbol of separation. “We already know the results,” says Boniface, one of the men. “It’s just formalities now. We are ready. We have been a country for five years.”
Abraham, another in the group, agrees: “We have an army, we have police, we have a president. What more do we need? Nothing. We are already a country. You are standing in a new country now.”
According to the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, the Juba-based organisation responsible for managing the polls, the 60 per cent turnout threshold for the vote to be valid was reached by the fourth day of voting, while international monitors say there is nothing to suggest there will be a challenge to the results.
For South Sudan, nationhood will bring many challenges. But among those voting in John Garang memorial park, there is an unquenchable desire to make secession work. “We are not afraid,” says Abraham. “We have trust in our people.”