Sudan is scheduled to hold two referendums on January 9. One on whether south Sudan becomes independent and another on whether the old-rich Abyei region joins the north or south. Sudan's referendum commission has chosen the symbols that will represent unity and separation on the ballots for the referendum on southern independence.
After considering using animals like cows, cranes or elephants, the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission settled on pictures of hands to represent the two choices in the January, 2011 referendum. The chairman of the commission's southern bureau, Justice Chan Reec Madut, said the commission wanted to choose symbols that were politically neutral.
"What has been agreed upon by the commission is two hands holding together like they are greeting, that symbolizes unity, and the other one will be the single palm of a hand," said Chan.
On January 9, 2011, Southern Sudanese are expected to vote on whether to remain united with the northern part of the country or become an independent nation. A 2005 peace deal ended 22 years of civil war in Sudan and the independence referendum is the centerpiece of that deal. For those who stayed in the south during the war, there were limited opportunities for education. Justice Chan said the symbols are a necessary part of the voting process.
"Most of the people in the countryside are illiterate, they need symbols that are simple to explain," added Chan.
In 2006, only 24 percent of Southern Sudanese were able to read. While that number has changed with the return of southerners who fled the war in the south and were able to go to school, an education system has yet to reach the rural parts of the south.
Now that the referendum commission has chosen symbols, they will be in charge of making sure voters know what they mean. The referendum process is seriously behind schedule and the challenge of educating a rural population will be added onto a tight voter registration schedule. The registration process will start Monday and end in December, with the final voter rolls expected just days before actual voting begins.
The power-sharing government in the north is holding the commission's funding. The governments in the north and south have been advancing money to the commission to fund its activities. The United Nations has also donated vehicles and provided airplanes and helicopters so the nationwide process has a chance of being completed.