Women broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots today in a week-long independence referendum likely to create the world’s newest nation about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.
The mainly Christian south is widely 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 now taking place under massive international scrutiny.
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.
Today there was only jubilation though 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 of hundreds lined up in front of the polling station. Sudan activist George Clooney was among those watching Kiir vote.
Kiir, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, appeared visibly emotional as he remembered the two million people killed in the 1983-2005 civil war. He also honoured rebel leader John Garang, who died in a plane crash shortly after the peace deal was signed.
“I am sure that they didn’t die in vain,” he told the crowd. Women broke out in singing and chants and one man waved a sign saying: “A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!”
Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang’s grave, where Kiir voted. Among the voters was Mawien Mabut, a 36-year-old soldier who was grinning widely as he lined up to cast his ballot.
“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 15% 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 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.
More than one 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 other Sudanese to vote at polling sites set up in eight US cities.
Sudan, geographically the largest country on the continent, 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.
In recent weeks Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has sought to play down fears of potential violence, saying the north will accept a vote for secession.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, one of several high-profile international visitors in Southern Sudan for the referendum, said today that the vote had been calm and peaceful so far. The Carter Center has observers monitoring voting across the country.
“I think the last thing that the leaders in the north or south want is a resumption of violence, which would be devastating to both countries, if they are two countries,” Carter said.
About 117,000 southerners who live in the north also registered to vote, but the scenes at polling stations in Sudan’s capital of 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 al-Bashir dressed in feathered southern headgear with the words:
“No to separation, together, together.”
At one high school polling station in Khartoum, about a dozen staffers and observers sat but no voters appeared. Another station saw only a trickle of voters and some voted against independence.
“I voted today, and frankly, I voted for unity,” said Aldod Akon Deng, 65, who is originally from the south. “I am here since 1964. My kids are all born in Khartoum. That’s why I voted for unity. I’ve been raised here. My family grew up here. Even if there’s separation, I’ll stay here.”
Ayeng Dut, a government employee in his 50s who plans to return south, opted not to vote.
“If I was in the south, I would have voted. But I’m here. I’m staying out of it,” he said. “For southerners, today is freedom.”