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High Hopes in Southern Sudan Over Referendum

January 10, 2011 at 4:50 PM EDT
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As residents of southern Sudan vote on a referendum to secede from the north or stay one country, dozens have been killed in new violence. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro checks in with Ray Suarez from the southern capital of Juba.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the making of a new nation. As residents of Southern Sudan vote on a referendum to secede from the North, dozens have been killed in violence along the border separating the two regions. But in the Southern capital, Juba, there is only celebration.

Fred de Sam Lazaro has been covering the story for us. Ray Suarez spoke with him earlier today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Fred, you’re in what may be the capital of a new country some day. What’s the atmosphere been like in Juba? What’s it like right now?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ray, it is jubilant. People have never experienced anything like this before in their history. We hear it likened frequently to what happened in 1994 in South Africa. There is great exuberance and unmitigated joy everywhere you go.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that at all tempered by the sense that they’re doing something pretty profound, splitting a country, heading off into a future that’s hard to see as very rosy?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Indeed, there is a lot of work to do, beginning with simply the mechanics of putting together a separation agreement.

There needs to be an agreement hashed out on how the oil wealth will be shared. There needs to be an agreement on how the debt burden, the external debt of Sudan, will be shared between North and South. There needs to be citizen rights issues sorted out. There is a whole host of issues.

But all that has been set aside to celebrate an event that many people thought completely improbable not very long ago. The history of this nation has been a very, very painful one in the South. It’s known nothing but war since its independence.

And the very fact that this plebiscite has actually occurred simply has people intoxicated by the fact that they have been able to vote freely.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk about that vote. Has it gone smoothly? What are the international observers saying?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For the most part, it’s gone very smoothly.

There have been what one analyst called pinprick events in odd locations across this vast land. Some of it goes on during nomadic migrations in any event. This stuff has gone on forever and may not be actually related to the elections. But, for the most part, the election has gotten pretty high marks, a clean bill, a clean report card.

RAY SUAREZ: Are most of the voters saying they favor separation?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Very, very much so. It’s hard to find anybody that is voting for unity. We found a few oil workers in the border region where I have hung out for the last couple of days. That was the one place where we had people say we ought to stay together, but a tiny sample that is. And, without question, this is going to be an overwhelming yes vote — for separation, that is.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any official or unofficial reaction from the North? Has Khartoum had anything to say about this plebiscite since the polls opened?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nothing that we have been able to hear firsthand. We have heard President Bashir of Sudan talk conciliatory, in conciliatory terms just a few days ago.

He talked today, according to President Carter, who is here as an observer — he reported that President Bashir agreed to take on all of the debt that this country has. But there has been so much acrimony between North and South, that no one here quite pays any attention to what is declared from the North, because there just isn’t credibility for that in the South.

RAY SUAREZ: If the vote goes as overwhelmingly as predicted in favor of secession, is there a counterpoint to Bashir? Is there a group or a leader who will be able to negotiate with the North on behalf of the people of the South?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Well, the giant leader, the Nelson Mandela, if you will — although I don’t want to stretch that comparison too much — John Garang, was killed in a plane crash in 2005.

The current president was his deputy, Salva Kiir. And he is a somewhat known quantity. He would be the leader of South Sudan. He will be leading a fractious nation which has seen its own ethnic divisions erupt in violence from time to time. There are a number of worries about how well the South will hold together.

But, again, in the euphoria of this vote, everybody is very united in the South. We haven’t heard a peep about the potential problems intra the Southern tribes.

RAY SUAREZ: Fred de Sam Lazaro is in Juba in South Sudan. Fred, good to talk with you.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Good to talk with you, Ray.

GWEN IFILL: Fred’s report is a partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.