/ 16 January 2011

Count under way in South Sudan’s referendum

Count Under Way In South Sudan's Referendum

The marathon task of counting the ballot in South Sudan’s independence referendum was under way on Sunday after the week-long polling on partitioning Africa’s largest nation closed.

“Secession. Secession. Secession,” the returning officer intoned on Saturday night as he carefully unfolded each ballot paper cast at a polling station in a school in the southern capital of Juba before pronouncing the voter’s choice.

There was the odd vote for unity with the mainly Arab, Muslim north but they were dwarfed by the huge pile in favour of turning the mainly Christian, African south into the world’s newest nation and putting the seal on five decades of civil conflict.

The count was being conducted by torchlight, creating an almost religious atmosphere in the small classroom. The school has no mains electricity.

Each vote was passed for checking to two other polling station staff and shown to domestic and international observers. There were a dozen at the school in Juba’s Hay Malakal neighbourhood.

Some polling stations were expected to continue the count through the night until all ballots had been recorded and checked.

Others, particularly in rural areas where many were out in the open, locked away the ballot boxes for the night and were due to start counting later on Sunday.

The deputy chairperson of the referendum commission, Chan Reec, said the only extension to polling would be among emigre voters in flood-hit areas of Australia, who would have a further five days.

An Anglican bishop sporting a purple cassock blew the “last trumpet” after being among the final people to vote before polls closed at 6pm (3pm GMT) on Saturday.

“I have blown the last trumpet at the very end of voting,” said Yugusuk, after sounding his orange vuvuzela, draped in the black, red and green of the south Sudanese flag.

Rueful resignation
“This is the signal not only of the end of the voting but of an end to our slavery, oppression and the beginning of our freedom,” said the Anglican bishop who chairs a Religious Referendum Leaders’ Initiative.

The vote was the centrepiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war between north and south that cost around two million lives.

The referendum commission’s chairperson, Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, an elder statesman who served as Sudanese foreign minister in the 1960s, hailed the “most peaceful” election he had ever seen in Sudan.

So many people turned out on the first four days of the week-long polling period that the 60% threshold set for the referendum to be valid by the 2005 peace agreement was already passed on Wednesday evening.

That hurdle had been the only real question mark over the poll — in a Sudanese general election last April the pro-independence former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement took a full 93% of the vote.

Few analysts expected the margin of victory to be much different this time round. The final result is not expected before next month.

A senior official of the National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir said it would accept the outcome even if the south voted to become the 193rd UN member state in July.

“The referendum took place in an atmosphere of calm … with a great degree of freedom and fairness,” said Rabie Abdul Ati. “It is very clear that the party will accept the result whether it be for unity or secession.”

On the streets of Khartoum, there was a sense of rueful resignation that the nearly nine million people of the south were poised to break away — and with them 80% of Sudan’s oil reserves, which provide China with a total of 6% of its oil supplies.

“I feel sad,” said Mustafa Mohammed, a young tax officer. “I am not for secession.” – AFP