News / Africa

For Young Sudanese, Referendum Brings Political Aspirations

Southern Sudan's landmark independence referendum got underway Sunday, with witnesses reporting scenes of jubilation at polling centers

A southern Sudanese man chants pro-independence slogans outside a polling station in the southern capital of Juba Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
A southern Sudanese man chants pro-independence slogans outside a polling station in the southern capital of Juba Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
Noel King

Thousands of Southern Sudanese went to polling centers across the country today for a crucial referendum vote that will determine whether Sudan's south and north remain united or split into two countries. Voting will continue until next Sunday. Southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for independence.

It may have been the biggest day in Sudan's recent history. But at the Catholic cathedral in Juba, Sunday church services went on as usual.  The choir sang hymns.  Families with children sat in pews at the front. Several bored young men stood in the back.

A few hundred yards away, lines of people snaked through the dust in the courtyard of a local school.  The school doubles as a polling station, and hundreds of southerners waited patiently to vote despite the searing heat.

It was a day of excitement for everyone.  Southern Sudanese have been waiting six years to cast their votes in this referendum, since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement ended the war.  But for young Sudanese people it was weighted with extra expectation.  They will be the ones leading their country into the future.

Carter Ohisa is 30 years old.  He was named for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is currently in southern Sudan to push for a peaceful referendum.

Carter says he is voting for separation. He has big plans for his future. And he does not want to waste any time remembering the past. 

"You know those days, we are always second class citizens in this country," Carter said. "We are not given priority to be president.  President is first class.  Always third class, I could say.  But now, I could even run for an MP (parliamentarian). I have that right, you know?"

Sudan's northern Arab government has controlled the political sphere since the end of colonial rule in 1956.  The 2005 peace agreement created a semi-autonomous government in the south, lead by Salva Kiir Mayardit.

But some young southerners advise caution for their countrymen who are keen to enter politics.  They say the south has always been a place where politics is a tricky and divisive business.

Nyaduol William Nyuon is twenty-three years old.  She grew up not in Sudan, but in Australia.  The war forced her family to flee the south when she was a child.

She is excited about the referendum.  But she says it is even more important for young Sudanese to look toward what happens after the vote.

"What the young people need to think about, which, I think sometimes it's left out of the discussion is what is going to happen after the referendum and what kind of country we want to structure and live in," Nyoun said. "Historically, because of war, because a lot of young people participated in war, we carry a lot of wounds with us.  And its very easy for these young people to be used in divisive politics."

The Government of Southern Sudan pushed publicly for southern unity in the months and weeks leading up to referendum.  But there are cultural and ethnic divisions in southern Sudan that continue to pose a threat to stability.

But young people do not seem to mind.

Ladu Reuben Joseph is a professor of public administration at Juba University.  He was one of the few lucky voters who managed to escape the searing heat with a spot under a shade tree.

Ladu teaches men and women in their late teens and twenties.  He says that many of his students have only one future profession in mind. 

"Politics here is very, very important," Joseph said. "Especially for those who have just come. In fact, that is the field that everybody wants to be in.  They think that when you are a politician, you will be heard of and you will express yourself freely.  Everybody will wish even to aspire to politics."

For those young people who decide to take up the challenge, governing in southern Sudan will never be an easy business.  

The nation's two-decade civil war claimed over two-million lives.  Southern Sudan is desperately poor and education, healthcare and infrastructure are sub-standard.

Still, for many young southern Sudanese today was not just an opportunity to cast a vote for unity or secession.  It was a chance to imagine themselves as leaders of a nation of their own.

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