Problems loom ahead of Sudan census

Cash-flow problems and logistic headaches are blighting preparations for Sudan’s census, a cornerstone of the fragile peace ending a devastating civil war and paving the way for key elections.

Repeatedly delayed already, the largest civic exercise in national history will go ahead from April 15 to 30, Sudanese authorities claim, despite complaints in the south about disorganisation.

The census is considered a vital prerequisite for next year’s elections and according to the peace agreement, the results will either redraw or confirm the ratio of central power-sharing between the former warring north and south.

“It’s very important for both of them. It’s important for the south because they don’t know the distribution of people in states in the south,” says Yasin Haj Abdin, director of Sudan’s central bureau of statistics.

“It’s important for the north because part of the distribution of government funds between states—one criteria will be the number of people.”

But as the preparations gather pace, the depth of mistrust between north and south three years after the end of Africa’s longest running civil war is clear.

Herbet Kandeh, the United Nations Population Fund officer overseeing the process, says for example that the north, where Sudan’s Arab minority dominates power, vetoed desires in the “African” south to include a question on ethnicity.

The compromise formula is a questionnaire offering the option of being northern Sudanese, southern Sudanese, non-Sudanese or no response.

In the south, there is a pervasive belief the population is far bigger than reflected in previous counts.

This would have huge implications for the 2009 elections and a planned referendum in 2011 in the south on whether to become independent.

“We are tired of being under-counted,” says health worker Mary Marle, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Stand Up and Be Counted”.

“You may find that we are 25-million,” she laughs.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, anticipates a huge surge in repatriation before the census of southern Sudanese from bordering countries.

Since January, there have been 15 700 organised returns—three times the number during the same period last year.

But the schedule for implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is slipping. Under the accord, the census should have been finalised last year.

“The delays in the census and other preparations, such as passage of the national elections law, mean that the electoral timetable is severely behind schedule,” warned the International Crisis Group in a recent report.

According to the CPA, general elections should be completed by the end of the fourth year of the interim period—namely July 2009.

UN officer Kandeh acknowledges there is a danger of more delays.

“Possibly only if the south does not accept the estimates of population from the field mapping.
The south has also requested additional questionnaires which the north is not likely to approve,” he said.

Cash-flow problems are another hindrance.

Officials in the south say they need an extra $6-million, partly because previous estimates overlooked the obstacles to accessing remote areas.

“There are certain areas with no roads. We are going there by plane,” said John Maciek, deputy chairperson of southern Sudan’s census commission.

“There are rivers and we are going to use boats.”

While Abdin of Sudan’s statistical bureau says the country’s fifth census will be the first for the entire country, parts of Darfur under rebel control, the Egyptian-occupied Halayib triangle in the north-east and remote southern areas are likely to be excluded.

“The census is an absolutely essential prerequisite for the 2009 elections, especially as it seems almost certain that the new electoral law is going to include an element of proportional representation,” said Laura James, from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“It is therefore a major concern if districts are excluded or inadequately counted.”

Many Sudanese see little point in the exercise.

“What is the government doing to help the people it knows exist right here in the capital,” says Mohamed Bushra, a technician in Khartoum.

“This counting will just make them increase taxation and enlarge the army and police.” - AFP

Jennie Matthew

Jennie Matthew

Matthews is an AFP New York correspondent. Previously in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Sudan and Middle East Read more from Jennie Matthew

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