For southern Sudan, a historic vote for independence

Alfred Lado at the Juba University Library in Juba, Sudan.
Alfred Lado at the Juba University Library in Juba, Sudan. (Jahi Chikwendiu - Washington Post)
By Rebecca Hamilton
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 12:00 AM

JUBA, SUDAN - One of Alfred Lado's earliest memories is from Jan. 1, 1956. He can be that specific because it was the date that Sudan got its independence from British colonial rule. A child at the time, he did not know the significance of the event, but on that day his brother told him he would be going to school for the first time.

The prospect of education excited Lado and continues to 55 years later as he sits in the library at Juba University, in the capital of southern Sudan, on the eve of another historic moment. On Sunday, he and millions of other southern Sudanese will vote on whether they want to become an independent nation, after decades of struggle and a bloody civil war.

The war between rebels in the primarily Christian and animist south against successive governments ruling from Khartoum in the predominantly Arab and Muslim north lasted almost the entire span of Lado's life.

"All that time we never knew that some day like this would come," he said.

Lado grew up in a mud hut in the village of Lainya, about 60 miles from Juba, unaware that it was one of the most neglected regions of the newly independent Sudan.

Throughout colonialism, the British ruled Sudan from the north and administered the territory as if it were two different countries. Beginning in 1922, they required travel permits for anyone who wished to cross between north and south.

But the swampy terrain made it difficult for the British to reach the southern part of the country, so they outsourced their responsibilities as a governing power to missionaries tasked with spreading Christianity and enforcing the English language.

Many children like Lado and his brother received a church education, and the missionaries also provided some medical care. But the south was deeply disadvantaged and remained so after the British left. Even today, Lado said his home village has no access to electricity or clean water.

By the time of Sudanese independence, the cultural differences between north and south had become entrenched.

Lado remembers a blissful childhood despite these problems until 1961, when he joined fellow students and the majority of southerners in a strike.

"The reason was the Arabs were saying we could not pray on Sunday and we had to pray on Friday instead," he said.

Gen. Ibrahim Abboud, who took control of the post-independence government in a 1958 military coup, had begun what would be a decades-long effort of successive governments in Khartoum to forge the identity of Sudan as an Arabic and Islamic nation.

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