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The Daily Need

Magical thinking in Sudan

By Skye Wheeler

Southern Sudanese voters are given the choice of the open palm for separation of the south or the clasped hands for unity with northern Sudan in the referendum vote which will end on Saturday. Photo: Skye Wheeler

Spirits are still high in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, even as last week’s referendum polling takes on the dreamlike quality of the important past.

Nothing compares to the sheer joy that filled the air as chattering, laughing, singing southern Sudanese lined up to vote for their independence, arriving even before the characteristic red sunrise. Big groups, including usually gruff senior civil servants, waved small paper secession flags like children.

I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited,” 20-year-old journalist Mary Achai said, showing off her fingertip still inked purple following her vote for her “own country.” Waking in the middle of the night in the darkness of her electricity-free neighborhood, she imagined the north dropping bombs on the polling stations, but heard only silence.

The north doesn’t want the south to secede, of course. It’s embarrassing to lose a third of your landmass, and the region holds most of Sudan’s proven oil reserves, much of the Nile River and lots of land with great agricultural potential.

Final results of the referendum are expected by February 14, but on an emotional level these are a formality — southerners have no doubt how they voted. Initial results show more than 98 percent in favor of separation.

But the day may not be won quite yet.

There are two kinds of problems ahead. The first and most immediate is with the north. The former foes have not been able to agree on the location of a north-south border or what will happen to incendiary Abyei, a small oil-rich region wanted by both sides. There is no pipeline for southern oil except through the north, but the two regions have not been able to agree on what kind of a cut the north could get for carrying it. There are hundreds of thousands of southerners in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, but it’s not clear what their status would be after independence, expected in July. The situation is gunpowder-packed, and time for negotiation is running out.

But the internal problems are more difficult in a way.

On a practical level, the south has been running itself since a peace deal in 2005. Khartoum has controlled the purse strings, sending down the south’s cut in oil revenues every month, but has no say in how it is spent. The south maintains control of their national border customs and even offers their own visa-type permit to enter their part of Sudan.

For the average person life is not necessarily going to be that different with independence. Despite widespread magical thinking, nascent health and education systems are not going to miraculously improve.

Embroiled in war all their lives, few southerners had ever had a chance to vote before last April’s national elections, seen as a logistical dry run for last week’s referendum. Analysts worried that the south was not ready for elections — too internally divided, too prone to violence.

The general feeling at the end of the elections was that things didn’t go as badly as they could have. But while the referendum vote showed the south united in joy, the April elections highlighted some of the south’s greater problems and underlying divisions — the unsurprising tendency after decades of war to resort to violence and intimidation; the “if you are not with us, you’re against us” mentality. Members of the former rebel movement who were not chosen to represent their party ran independently, splitting families, counties and states and igniting small armed rebellions by angered losers. Intimidation and harassment were widespread, hundreds of people were arrested and jailed. There were accusations of fraud and inconsistencies in polling stations numbers.

It was ignored, mostly. With the referendum on its way, most people wanted to let it go. During the referendum itself, European Union observers said, there were a few isolated cases of intimidation of individuals believed to be pro-unity. Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed after a governor castigated them for not voting for religious reasons, and their church burned down in suspicious circumstances.

The promise is that without the north everything will be better. Here’s to hoping challenges are overcome and that proves true. But that will mean not just remembering the joy of the referendum but the problems of the elections too.

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