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Birth of a nation
25 January 2011

Lobone in Southern Sudan. Not a hint of panic or complaint was to be found here during voting in the referendum in January 2011. (Angelika Mendes/JRS)
When one bears in mind that Sudan has never had an election or a democratic handover of power in its 56 years of independence, with the single exception of the election in April 2010, what I was witnessing was truly remarkable. Up to last year every president in Sudan came to power on the back of a coup d’état.
Right now in Lobone and its surrounding area there is a quietly growing confidence and a burgeoning joy that a new country is about to be born right here in South Sudan. When one realises that South Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, I feel a great deal of admiration for the manner in which both registration for and the referendum itself were conducted.

In November 2010, registration for voting in the referendum took place in a calm, unhurried and peaceful manner. I accompanied two of my colleagues when they went to register to vote here in Lobone and found a cordial and pleasant atmosphere at the centre. The officials were warm and welcoming and there was no undue delay. This is not the usual experience of African bureaucracy! Long frustrating waits and delays numbered not by the minute but by hours, days and sometimes weeks are not uncommon. I was able to walk away after waiting for only ten minutes on my colleagues, Lillian and Emmanuel, as they proudly carried their pristine laminated registration cards. All the logistics needed for registration and the issuing of cards were clearly and definitively in place. I was impressed.

I returned to Lobone in the second week of January in the middle of the referendum to decide on separation from or reunification with (northern) Sudan. As with the time of registration in November I again found the same tranquil and peaceful ambience. There was not a hint of panic or complaint to be found. People here were voting as if it was second nature and a lifelong habit. When one bears in mind that Sudan has never had an election or a democratic handover of power in its 56 years of independence, with the single exception of the election in April 2010, what I was witnessing was truly remarkable. Up to last year every president in Sudan came to power on the back of a coup d’état.

International monitors said the 2010 election was not quite up to international standards. This New Year referendum has been saluted by the international community with flying colours in terms of it being free and fair and of a high standard. Many other African nations would do well to emulate South Sudan in terms of its electoral standards.

In all of this, I cannot help but wonder at the steady and serene hand at the political helm of South Sudan over the last 5 years. I am speaking about Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan and, Vice-President of Sudan. Salva Kiir succeeded John Garang as President of South Sudan after Garang’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in 2005. Garang was probably the best man to wage the brutal war against Khartoum from the mid 80s up to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. However, Salva Kiir has proved himself a worthy successor in the implementation of the CPA and, most importantly, in managing to successfully organise and oversee both the election in 2010 and the referendum of last week in a country bereft of any meaningful experience in organising democratic elections or referenda.

I also believe that his invitation to Omar al Bashir, President of Sudan to come to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, just before the referendum was a political master stroke. In the opinion of one the best newspapers in this region, the East African, January 17th 2011, Kiir is seen as someone with the ability to bring enemies to the table. Kiir has done so with the north. When Sudan’s President Omar al Al Bashir visited Southern Sudan a week before the referendum, few could have anticipated al-Bashir’s turnaround. He basically apologised for what the north did. Northern Sudan tried to Islamize the south, he said, but now he knows it can’t work. And the Sudanese President not only repeated the promise to be the first to accept an independent southern Sudan, he also pledged training, logistics and industrial support to the new country.

Part of al-Bashir’s change was because Kiir always left a window open for talking. In addition, with the international community, in the form of the African Union, the Carter Center and the EU, offering huge support to the holding of and in monitoring the referendum in South Sudan, it would have seemed churlish and small-minded if Bashir had offered anything other than his support and approval for the Government of South Sudan, headed by Kiir, in its efforts to allow its people to decide their future in a well organised, free, fair and democratic referendum.

If initial indications are anything to go by, the people of South Sudan will have voted by a huge majority, of the order of over 90%, to form a new independent South Sudan. I am sure the popular reaction to the announcement of the result in mid-February will be euphoric. After the celebrations South Sudan will need the quiet, unassuming and wise leadership of Salva Kiir allied to good and enlightened governance to bring as many as possible able minds to bear on the task of building a new nation. Such a task badly needs to be undertaken, particularly in terms of basic infrastructure, such as schools, clinics, hospitals, water and electricity, phone networks, etc which are almost non-existent. 

Furthermore, the full and proper training of men and women in public administration, teaching, medicine, law and every recognised trade and profession needs to be put into immediate effect. To sit back complacently and expect oil revenue to simply develop the country, as if by the waving of a magic wand, would be not only hugely disappointing but disastrous.

Let all our prayers and hopes and those of the long-suffering people of South Sudan be realised in a balanced, measured and peaceful development of a new nation with so much potential.

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent, or should be attributed to, JRS. 


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