Sudan starts key census amid dispute

Sudan on Tuesday shut down for its first census in 15 years, a milestone in the peace deal that ended Africa’s longest civil war but clouded in dispute threatening to undermine the accord further.

In the 2005 agreement signed by the former warring north and south, the two-week census is crucial to prepare constituencies for national elections and confirm or adjust the wealth and power-sharing ratios in central government.

But the undeveloped south has refused to be bound by the results and rebels in Darfur will boycott the count, both accusing the Arab north of manipulating the census to maximise its control and marginalise the African majority.

Khartoum, assisted greatly by the United Nations, says it has prepared the most comprehensive population count held to date in Sudan, almost constantly engulfed in civil war since independence from Britain in 1956.

”The planning and field work in the south has been the best possible … They have every enumerator in place and [we have] the international resources to get the best possible census,” said Yasin Haj Abdin, director of the central bureau of statistics.

About 60 000 enumerators, monitored by 200 observers, will count the estimated 40-million population, costing Sudan and the international community $103-million.

Rain fell in Khartoum on Tuesday — almost unheard of in April — and parts of the city were left without electricity, but the census began on time.

”We have some difficulties with the weather. There is rain here and there, but it is still going on, we have had a very successful start,” said Abdel Bagi Gailani, the head of the monitoring and observation committee.

But discontentment and disillusionment run deep in the south, where the legacy of the war that killed two million people and displaced another four million is keenly felt despite a flood of refugees returning for the count.

”The level of preparedness was very low and even if counting takes place [on Tuesday] it’s not going to produce the desired results,” south Sudan information minister Gabriel Changson Chang said.

His government said it is unlikely to accept the results after the north insisted the survey go ahead. It was delayed for the fourth time last week when the south complained that ethnicity and religion were not included.

The Arab domination of power in what is Africa’s largest country was a major reason for the two-decade civil war between north and south, as well as for the separate five-year conflict still raging in the west.


International observers have raised concerns that significant parts of Darfur — a region the size of France — will be excluded from the count owing to fierce opposition from rebel groups.

”Before peace there is no census,” said Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement, the strongest rebel group militarily in Darfur.

”My people are not there at home, many of them crossed borders. They’re in Chad and concentrated in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps, under trees here and there, in mountains and villages, so what they’re doing is meaningless,” he added.

The authorities claim that only 3% of Darfur will be left out of the census but international observers fear far more will be excluded.

The Egyptian-occupied Halayib triangle in the north-east and remote areas in the south are likely to be excluded, although Isaiah Chol, the head of the southern census, said enumerators have 55 boats to access flooded areas.

The schedule for implementing the comprehensive peace agreement, under which general elections should have been completed by July 2009, is slipping. Under the accord, the census should also have been finalised last year.

Borders between north and southern Sudan have not yet been demarcated and political tensions remain high in the contested oil-rich state of Abyei.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that further delay of the census ”could have considerable political and financial implications”.

The International Crisis Group has warned that the electoral timetable is severely behind schedule and that problems in Darfur will either require a contingency plan or the entire electoral timetable will need to be reworked.

The central bureau of statistics expects census results as early as September, but other officials have quoted Christmas as a more realistic date. — Sapa-AFP

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

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