Global Politics

Independence vote nears for South Sudan

Voters in Sudan are less than 50 days away from deciding whether to create a new African country or remain one country. Sudan is Africa's largest country and this vote is part of a peace deal reached five years ago following civil war between the north and south. Sean Carberry reports.

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It's a hot Sunday afternoon in the equatorial city of Juba. About 20 men and women are gathered in the shade and an instructor is running them through the steps of registering voters. The training covers the basics � like laying out the table and opening the registration kit � as well as the complexities of verifying the ID and eligibility of voters.

In order to register, someone either has to have been born in the south, or be a child of someone who was. Ubaldo Anthony is from Juba County and comes to attend the training. He is one of about 8000 people who will work in the 2600 or so registration centers scattered across southern Sudan. He says they started yesterday and they were taught the practical part of the training, what is actually going to take place on November 15.

Registering to vote in southern Sudan isn't what you'd expect. In a country lacking effective bureaucracy and public records, not everyone has an ID card, which means people can't immediately prove who they are. Ubaldo says, �most of the people in the rural areas will be identified by the chiefs or the elders that stay in the area If he knows you, then he will convince me �that guy lives in my area, you can allow him to register. But, here in the town, most of the people, I'm sure that they've got IDs, passports, or something of that kind.�

And even those who do have ID cards often don't realize they need them to register. That's one of the many challenges of conducting a referendum in south Sudan where illiteracy rates are high, media penetration is low, and this process is something unprecedented.

Yuan Segin Yamin is one of the tribal chiefs charged with identifying people at this registration center in Malakal, the capital city of south Sudan's upper Nile state. In just the first two days of registration, this center processed nearly 500 voters and Yamin says many people showed up the first day without ID. But today, he says, those who registered yesterday told their people they had to come with identity cards but there only a few people who showed up.

I asked if the few who didn't have identify cards were still allowed to register if Yamin recognized them.

Yamin says, �Yes, yes, it's very important. Because you identify someone whom you know. You may know the father, but you might not know this young guy. But you will know through the father, that is what we are doing here now.

It seems like old-school Chicago politics � a local boss � in this case elder or chief � makes the call whether people get to vote in the referendum. This is not exactly a system that would pass muster in most developed societies these days, but even US diplomats accept that it's a local solution to a local problem.

Sitting in her office in Juba, Marakaje Lorna agrees. She's the secretary general of the Sudan Domestic Election Monitoring and Observation Program or SUDEMOP � an independent civil society agency. She says, �The beauty of Southern Sudanese community is that we almost know everybody. So, I don't see it as a challenge as such to identify who is a southern Sudanese.�

What SUDEMOP and many in the south see as the bigger challenge is making sure that everyone who registers actually turns out on January 9. The rules of the referendum state that 60% of those who register must vote or the results are void.

And there's widespread concern that the north will find ways to suppress the turnout � whether that's registering southerners living in the north and preventing them from voting, or sending people to the south to buy registration cards off of poor people.

Merekaje Lorna says they are watching and when they see something come up of concern, they will raise it then.