News / Africa

Excitement, Nervousness as South Sudan Prepares for Independence Vote

A Sudanese man cheers during a demonstration in support of the referendum on southern independence during a rally organized by the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau in Juba, 07 Jan 2011.
A Sudanese man cheers during a demonstration in support of the referendum on southern independence during a rally organized by the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau in Juba, 07 Jan 2011.

Nearly four million southern Sudanese are preparing to go to the polls beginning Sunday. During the week-long polling, they are to choose whether to remain a part of Africa’s largest country or break away to form the continent’s newest nation.

Southern Sudanese paraded through the streets Friday on the final day of campaigning before Sunday’s vote.

After decades of conflict that cost an estimated two million lives and choked most economic development, voters are to choose whether to remain united with northern Sudan or secede to form their own nation.

If the posters and rallies on the dusty streets of this provincial capital are an indication, most voters appear likely to choose separation.

David Gressly heads the United Nations mission in southern Sudan. He told VOA that everything was ready.

"[Voting] materials have been delivered. Training is underway for the final wave of polling workers. That should be completed on time,” he said. “The security situation is calm. It’s been calm for a number of weeks. So we think this is going to start on time. It will go very peacefully."

More than 26,000 voting centers across the region are to open from Sunday until next Saturday to allow every eligible voter to participate.

The referendum is the result of an agreement six years ago that ended the civil war. It brought regional autonomy to southern Sudan which historically has had greater cultural and economic ties to East Africa than to the Arab-led government thousands of kilometers to the north.

Many northern Sudanese are nervous about a possible secession and have urged southerners to remain united.

But many southerners feel their region has been unfairly treated by Khartoum and separation will allow more equitable development here.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Juba Tuesday and said his government would respect the results.

He says at this moment of self-determination we want the process to be peaceful, transparent and free. And whether the results bring unity or secession the people should accept it in good spirit.

Hundreds of observers from Sudan and around the world have gathered for the vote.

The head of the advance monitoring team of the U.S.-based Carter Center, Sarah Johnson, acknowledged the worries calling it a historic moment that would cause anxiety anywhere.

"In the lead-up to any electoral process and any election there is a bit of increase in tensions,” Johnson said. “That’s true in any country as everyone anticipates the vote. However, we have every reason to believe that things will go forward in a smooth manner."

Official results are not due for several weeks but preliminary tallies are expected sooner as returns are tabulated and announced at polling centers.

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