[Note from the author: I originally wrote this story for TIME Magazine several months ago after I returned to the US from an expedition in South Sudan to document the various rituals and ceremonies of the region. I hope that this story, in light of the events currently taking place in South Sudan will provide insight and background on this historic and unprecedented vote.]
[This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact the author for re-print rights.]
On January the 9th, the people of South Sudan will go to the polls to cast their votes in a referendum for unity or secession from the Republic of Sudan. For many, the referendum represents the final steps of a long, brutal walk towards freedom. South Sudan’s struggle for independence began in 1955 with the first Anyanya freedom fighter movement and later continued in the early 1980’s under the SPLA rebel insurgency led by Dr John Garang. In 2005, after decades of war, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in Naivasha, Kenya, bringing an end to the conflict between North and South Sudan. At it’s conclusion, the peace agreement between the respective governments of the north and the south would recognize the territorial sovereignty of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS), establish power sharing, wealth sharing and mandate that a referendum for or against national unity with the republic would be held. The referendum, as defined within the Machakos Protocol, is the final phase and implementation of the peace agreement and is to be held at the end of the Post Interim Period, 6 years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Soon, after years of struggle voting will begin at polling locations across all 10 states of South Sudan and the people will have their opportunity to be heard.
In Yambio, government preparations are underway in support of the referendum as GOSS officials mount awareness campaigns and educational drives across state and county lines. However, with the date of the referendum fast approaching, the people of South Sudan face renewed threats of violence and uncertainty amid a voting process perceived certain to bring down the wrath of International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
In Western Equatoria State, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by General Joseph Kony and the nomadic, heavily armed Ambororo, wage a merciless campaign of terror and destabilization. Well equipped LRA rebels primarily operating cross-border in South Sudan from bases in the eastern province of Central African Republic, number in the hundreds. Military pursuit of the LRA by the SPLA and Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) has met with limited success. Despite ongoing operations, LRA General Joseph Kony and his guerilla forces remain elusive and continue to pose a serious threat to peace and stability within Western Equatoria and neighboring states.
Uniformed Ambororo fighters, estimated at over three thousand men, armed with sophisticated weapons, munitions, Thuraya satellite phones, horses and camels are believed by GOSS officials and locals to be a North Sudan government supported Janjaweed militia faction from Darfur. In recent clashes with the Ambororo the SPLA has suffered casualties and the destruction of civilian property, prompting calls by GOSS officials for the Ambororo to leave South Sudan.
Following attacks on civilians and an SPLA patrol in Tambura County by the Ambororo, GOSS officials of Western Equatoria charged that recent incidents by both the LRA and the Ambororo are orchestrated attempts by the North government to create division amongst South Sudanese and to thwart the referendum by frightening potential voters. Despite the dangers posed by the LRA, and the Ambororo, the people of South Sudan remain determined to express their voices by voting in the referendum.
In Yambio, Sudan government preparations are already underway in support of the referendum as GOSS officials mount awareness campaigns and educational drives across state and county lines. I spoke with several people from across South Sudan about the coming referendum and it’s effect upon their lives. When asked about the importance of the referendum of South Sudan, William Katawa, age 27, a student and Azande of Yambio, South Sudan said of the referendum, “It means freedom from the Arabs. The Azande people have felt marginalized since 1956 and would like to exercise their right to vote for independence of South Sudan.”
Mande Daniel, age 29, a Human Resources Manager and Azande of Yambio, South Sudan said, “Should the referendum give the full independence, it will mean development. Sudan is the largest country in Africa but has been the least developed because the Arab north has always marginalized the south. We need help to make sure that independence is no longer a dream. Just as help was needed to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement we need help to get the independence we have longed for far too long. The Khartoum government will do whatever it can to delay the process. They have used many tactics even up till now. We cannot afford to wait any more.”
Rosaline Oboy, age 23, a journalist and Lotuko of Torit, South Sudan expressed, “The law (now) favors Islam. The south needs its own law. We don’t want Islamic law. We don’t want the Sharia law. It means freedom in terms of education. We, the blacks have been segregated in terms of education. Now, with the Government of Southern Sudan, I can see development already taking place and I know that if I go back there now I will get a good job and have good opportunities. I can also exercise my political rights. Not like in years back. Now, I can express myself. We can even criticize our leaders. We will get our freedom. Southerners had no say before. We could easily be killed. Our parents were killed, shot down, imprisoned and tortured. Now we will have our freedom.”
Jacob, age 32, a student and Dinka of Jongelei, South Sudan said, “South Sudan has been suffering since creation. We need to develop as southerners and recognize our rights and abilities among other countries. We fight among ourselves and it is a result of the influence of the north. The referendum will help us develop ourselves and we will have the time to use our resources. This is the time now of the final decision.”
As part of an elite commando unit of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) called, “Kaki Baniran”, Sergeant Major Natali, a Kakwa of Juba, Sudan fought in battles from Kubur Orben, west of Juba, to the heart Darfur. Today, after years of fighting, he finally sees a chance for peace and welcomes a new beginning. When we spoke in Maridi, he shared with me his thoughts about the referendum and his aspirations for South Sudan after having fought for freedom and liberation of South Sudan for so many years. “To me the referendum means the separation of South Sudan from the northern government because the Arabs used to force us to learn only Arabic. If someone persisted to learn English he was removed from school automatically. They also blocked many of our people from advancing or going to school with the pretext that they are too old to continue school. On the religious matter, they never wanted for anyone to adhere to the Christianity and everyone is forced to be Muslim and they cultivate the hatred toward anybody found practicing Christianity. In the south, we were not permitted to access certain steps of development. The real improvement was only found in the north. My feeling (about the referendum) is very positive. For now I am seeing changes coming. After the separation I hope there will be peace in South Sudan. I don’t know what the northerners are thinking to do but we will have peace.”
With the three months remaining before the referendum, no one can say with certainty what the future holds for the people of South Sudan, but for people like Mande Daniel, Rosaline Oboy, William Katawa, Jacob, and Sgt Major Natali and the millions of others who intend to cast their ballots next January, the referendum represents a chance for peace, independence an end to Arab rule and the final destination on the long walk towards freedom.
This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.