Southern Sudan on cusp of independence as voters heads to polls Sunday

After years of war, millions of southern Sudanese head to the polls to decide whether to secede from the north in a historic vote that is widely expected to result in a new nation.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 8:50 AM

IN JUBA, SUDAN Millions of southern Sudanese head to the polls Sunday to decide whether to secede from the north in a historic vote that is widely expected to create the world's newest nation.

After a long and bloody civil war, and after decades of sectarian and ethnic animosities, the mood in this southern capital was electric.

Before dawn, large crowds stood in long snaking lines outside polling stations. Amid heavy security, they sang and danced, chanting such lyrics as, "We are here to thank God today."

"We have been waiting for this day all our lives," said Suzy John, 28, a businesswoman who was waiting in line at the mausoleum of John Garang, the south Sudan rebel leader who died several years ago in a helicopter crash. "It means self determination, freedom, hope for the future and hope for the future of our children."

Kur Ayuen Kou, 32, who was among 4 million people displaced by the conflict before he returned to southern Sudan from Australia, said: "This vote is about gaining our freedom. It's about gaining our dignity. It's about ending our slavery."

But the week-long referendum, the last stage in a U.S.-backed peace process that ended the war, will take place under a cloud of uncertainty.

Many issues that will determine the relationship between the north and south remain unresolved, key among them citizenship rights, contentious border areas and the sharing of Sudan's massive oil reserves, the majority of which lie in the south.

The tensions have triggered fears that conflict could erupt again in the months ahead, destabilizing a region where the United States is fighting the rise of Islamic radicalism.

A day before voting began, six people were killed in clashes between southern Sudan's army and rebel militias in an oil-producing region.

An independent southern Sudan would become one of the world's least developed countries, its population among the poorest and most vulnerable, despite receiving nearly $10 billion in oil revenue since 2005. But the region, which is roughly the size of Texas, has few schools, hospitals and paved roads. Illiteracy and malnutrition remain high.

A peaceful vote, and an outcome accepted without dispute, could lay the groundwork for one of the Obama administration's most significant policy successes in Africa. Activists and aid groups have criticized the administration for not being more engaged on the continent and lacking a cohesive policy, especially for Sudan.

On Saturday, U.S. officials arrived in Juba, the southern region's capital, to support the referendum and offer assurances that the United States is committed to southern Sudan's future.

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