Southern Sudan prepares to wave 'Bye bye Khartoum'

  • 7 January 2011
  • From the section Africa
Supporters of southern independence

The map of Africa is about to change. The continent's largest country looks set to be split in two as southern Sudanese start voting in a referendum on independence this Sunday.

This is no cliff-hanger - it would be a surprise if fewer than 90% of the votes were in favour of breaking away from the north.

"Bye Bye Khartoum," reads a banner outside a shop in Juba - the town which is surely going to become the world's newest capital.

The southerners, who are mostly Christian or follow traditional beliefs, deeply resent years of domination by the mainly Arab north whose politicians tried but failed to impose Islamic law right across the country, sparking two decades of war.

"I need separation because the Arabs have been sitting on the southerners," said Jimmy, one of the workers in the shop.

"We do not need any leadership from Khartoum. We have our own resources. We have been suffering for over 50 years," added the shop-owner, Francis.

"I was born in war. I grew up in the war. Throughout my education - war was there. I could only set up this business when the peace came," he added.

'Thorny road'

Sudan's independence in 1956 followed more than 50 years of joint British-Egyptian rule but 2011 is the year that most southerners expect to start counting the years of real independence.

Image caption Lt-Gen James Hoth Mai said he always knew this day would come for Southern Sudan

For 32 of the years that followed the end of colonial rule, gunfire and aerial bombardment wreaked havoc across southern Sudan, as the brutal civil war between north and south raged and at times looked like never ending.

Today inside the barracks of the former southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), I witnessed an extraordinary sight.

High-ranking soldiers were smiling as they scrutinised a list taped to a wall. It indicated at which polling station within the barracks they would be casting their ballots in the independence referendum.

For the SPLA fighters who fought against northern government soldiers and their allied militias, this event is the culmination of an arduous battle.

"I am really happy to see that we are going to end this thorny road we have been on," SPLA Chief of Staff Lt-Gen James Hoth Mai told me with his voter registration card in hand.

"Whether I was alive or dead, I knew those who were still alive would make it - we were determined to reach this day."

"We should be the happiest people," added Maj Gen JJ Okot who joined the SPLA in the mid-1980s at the age of 22.

Image caption President Omar al-Bashir (r) has said separation will be the achievement of "real peace" in Sudan

"This is going to be the final war, by giving my vote for the freedom of our people. It supplements the energy and the efforts we exerted. It supplements the loss of colleagues who fell in the battlefield in search of freedom."

The war ended with a peace deal in 2005 which guaranteed the south the right to choose between unity or independence.

It appears that the northern politicians have, in recent weeks, finally realised the split was on the way and that an amicable divorce was the best option for all sides.

This week, President Omar al-Bashir made a rare visit to Juba and his message went a long way to appease those who feared the north would do all it could, including using a return to violence, to block the referendum.

"It will be sad for Sudan to disintegrate. But we will be happy if through this referendum and the formation of the two states we will have achieved real peace and peace on both sides of Sudan," President Bashir said before offering Southern Sudan support, advice, expertise and training.

Countdown clock interrupted

Considering the history of animosity between the two sides it was astonishing to see him smiling beside the man who is set to be the first president of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir.

The road to independence has been rough but there are still plenty of potentially lethal pot holes ahead.

The two sides have still not agreed how to share the profits from the oil wells, most of which are situated in the south. The south exports its oil via Port Sudan in the north - so the split needs to be cordial or the government in Juba risks losing almost all of its revenue.

Parts of the oil-rich common border have not been demarcated, which leaves plenty of room for disagreement in the months ahead, while there is also the need to ensure cattle-herding communities can cross the border to allow their animals to graze.

In addition, the issue of citizenship is still not as clear as it could be.

Thousands of southerners who had been living in, or were even born in, the north have packed their bags in recent months and have headed south out of fear that they would face discrimination and harassment if the country splits.

Since the 2005 peace agreement, the number of Arabs living in the south has also dropped, although in Juba I met an Arab trader who seemed completely at ease.

"The relations between the people will be good as there is intermarriage between the north and south," said Abu Obida Korak, wearing white robes from head to toe.

Despite roots in the north, his family has been living in Juba for more than 100 years.

"When there was dialogue between the southern government and Muslim community, President Salva Kiir gave assurance that all the northerners would be protected here in south Sudan," he added.

With or without interference from the north, an independent south will still face huge challenges.

Largely thanks to the war, Southern Sudan will start off life as one of the very poorest nations on the planet, where preventing inter-ethnic conflict will be a major test.

In Juba, the digital clock which was meant to countdown the minutes to the referendum keeps re-setting to zero because of the erratic power supply.

Nobody expects things to suddenly start working after independence but the yearning for freedom here is far too strong to let that dampen the excitement.