South Sudan votes for secession, worries later.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 10 2011 1:57 PM

South Sudan Throws Off the Weight of the North

Their new country will be poor and underdeveloped, but as they vote for separation this week, that doesn't matter to southerners.

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A Southern Sudanese woman casts her vote at a polling station in Rumbek. Click image to expand.
A southern Sudanese woman casts her vote

MALAKAL, Sudan—Dancing under a crescent moon, James Aman's children leapt and whooped to celebrate the breakup of Sudan. More than a dozen sons and daughters and nieces and nephews sang and bounced in unison in the cool night, accompanied by the tooting of a cow's horn.

"They are dancing because we are happy for the referendum today and that now we have our own country," Aman said, watching with a smile as the teenagers left his reed-walled compound to begin a noisy circuit of the unlit neighborhood. "They are dancing because the weight of the north is now gone."

South Sudan's leaders have been outplayed by their wily northern counterparts on almost every level in the six years since a peace agreement ended generations of civil war here. In the first years of peace, southerners lost control of important ministries they'd been promised in the postwar government, of the governorships of key states, and, it is widely believed, of hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen oil profits.

Tribal violence, some of it spurred by President Omar al-Bashir's Islamist regime in Khartoum, killed nearly 1,000 people in the south last year and displaced more than 200,000. Corruption has flowered, depriving the people of this deeply impoverished region of basic health and other services.

Yesterday, none of that mattered.

Hundreds of thousands of people across southern Sudan participated in the constitutionally mandated referendum, their gleeful images beamed across the world thanks to a giant international media presence. But the results have never been in doubt. On Jan. 15, after a week of voting, southerners will formally begin the six-month process of breaking away from Africa's largest country. On July 9, their new state will be welcomed by the world community—even the Arab League is considering South Sudan for membership.

To ensure their liberation from Sudan's Arab-led north after 65 years of oppression and two civil wars, the southerners have left little to chance. An attempt to stop the vote in Sudan's constitutional court was stymied when the south's leader, Salva Kiir Mayardit, summoned home from Khartoum two southern members of the bench, thereby depriving the court of a quorum.

Efforts to secure the referendum have taken a nasty turn for some Arab residents of the south, however. More than 4 million people registered to vote, among them a farmer named Adam Ismail, but Ismail won't be placing his fingerprint on a paper ballot this week.

A resident of a disputed region called Fokhar on Sudan's north-south border in Upper Nile state, Ismail and more than 1,000 other Arabs have abandoned their homes and fields and fled to the north after a campaign of intimidation by southern soldiers.

The Arab tribes of Fokhar have long enjoyed good relations with their neighbors from the Dinka tribe, Ismail said, and the locality even includes a few mixed families, but the Arabs have been viewed with hostile suspicion by local commanders of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

A campaign of intimidation, including arrests and interrogations, night visits by uniformed gunmen, and the shooting death of one member of the community, escalated last November, after local Arabs began registering to vote. Nearly 10 percent of the community has fled north to White Nile state, abandoning their fields and some livestock.

"They were threatening us to not vote for unity," Ismail told me by telephone. "It was our right to register, and we all registered—that's why this is happening." Ismail's family, and nearly 250 other families of the Shukriya tribe, are beginning their seventh week in camps north of the border. Their makeshift shelters are taking on signs of permanence. It is a rare and unfortunate turn of the Sudanese wheel—Arabs dispossessed by African gunmen because of their religion and tribe.

Other Arabs, traders who've lived here in Malakal and other cities for decades, have fled north, as well. Some will stay put. Others are waiting to see if the south remains at peace before returning with their stock.

A far bigger migration is taking place from north to south. More than 120,000 southerners have abandoned their homes in Khartoum and other cities to throw in their lot with the new state. One night last week, at an open-air way-station in Omdurman, just across the Blue Nile from Khartoum, groups of southern men and boys stood watch over piles of bed frames, mattresses, and peeling bureaus, waiting for the trucks and buses that would take them south.

It was southern nationalism—pure and simple—they said, that had motivated them to leave at this time, after decades of relative security in the north. Alone, away from the group, one man admitted that he and many of his friends had been shaken by a speech last month in which President Bashir promised a resurgence of sharia law. (The future, Bashir said, would be "no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity," an odd contention given that even without the south's 8 million blacks, Arabs will still not form a majority in the new, truncated Sudan.)

The migrant influx has proved to be more than the south can handle. At least 22,000 people arrived recently to one dusty pocket of Northern Bahr El Ghazal state, where they joined 5,000 others displaced last year from their homes near the border by northern bombers. After days on the road with little food and water, many newcomers are sick and weak.

"While the entire world focuses on the referendum on self-determination, we are seeing an existing humanitarian emergency grow rapidly worse and overwhelm the local capacity," Susan Purdin, who oversees the International Rescue Committee's programs in southern Sudan, said in a statement.

The biggest tension has not been in the south at all, but in the hotly disputed region of Abyei, which is torn between the southern Ngok Dinka tribe and Arab Misseriya nomads, who use Abyei as a traditional watering ground for their herds. Similar disputes occur elsewhere along the still-undemarcated border between north and south, but Abyei sits on top of oil, making it a more worthy prize.

Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement called for a referendum to be held this week, in which residents of Abyei would decide whether they wished the region to remain in the north or to become part of the south, but that vote has been postponed after disagreements over who would have the right to participate. At least 30 people have been killed in Abyei in clashes that began on Friday.

For once, tension and fear of gunfire seem far away from Malakal. This Nile port city saw two major battles between northern and southern forces, in 2006 and again in 2009, that left more than 400 people dead (not to mention a 2007 skirmish that found me hiding in a brick-walled outhouse), but that seems like another era.

At 3 a.m. on Sunday, 40-year-old Natal Onane Charles woke up in his mud and reed house, slipped on a gray suit, a fraying white Oxford shirt, green socks, and brown boots, and set out alone in the cold for the primary school that would serve as his local polling place. He said he felt skittish at first, walking alone in the mist, but he pressed on until he reached the town.

"When I got to the polling station, my friends were already standing in line, them and 50 others," he said. "They told me, 'Where have you been? You are late.' "

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Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile. He writes at danmorrison.net and tweets at @dmsouthasia and @theblacknile.