January 21 A (new) country mile

There are landslides, there are country miles, and then, there is southern Sudan. With 92.5 per cent of referendum votes from the southern region’s ten states counted so far, this afternoon’s latest release of results – handed to me at the data centre – show that 99.23 per cent (3.36 million people) have plumped for separation.

Soon after, I watched the results arrive from Malakal, capital of the remote Upper Nile state arrive, among 203 remaining results forms (of 2,504) that have not yet reached the election body in the southern capital Juba. Handfuls of international and local observers watched the independent electoral body go to work.

The results remain incomplete and provisional, but the endorsement is pretty uniform across the region’s ten states: from an almost subversive 94.48 per cent in Western Bahr El Ghazal state to 99.89 per cent in Jonglei state.

Overseas votes, cast in eight countries including Australia, UK and the US, also overwhelmingly back separation with 98.55 per cent, where all votes are in. Only in the north, where the vote runs only to 69,597 people, is there evidence of a split: here 57.65 per cent back separation.

So overwhelming is the vote that final results, which must be validated by the Khartoum government and were expected in mid-February, are now likely to be brought forward to January 30. Some weaknesses, and perhaps some fraud, have been highlighted.

Turnout has in several cases reached more than 100 per cent, although officials and observers think this may have more to do with a chaotic registration process than outright fraud. In one of 24 “quarantined” cases, a polling station at Nyinthok Primary School in Jonglei state recorded a 177.8 percent turnout. The independent election bureau is not even isolating cases of turnouts of between 100 per cent and less than 105 per cent. Election experts say when fraud occurs it tends to happen on a larger scale.

At Yederu, all 65 registered voters picked separation. In neighbouring Koggi Kagwada, still smarting from being one vote short of a 100 per cent turnout, of the 102 who voted, 101 backed secession. The other one? A spoiled ballot, an official told me: the voter folded the paper the wrong way and the ink smudged onto the space for unity as well as secession. It’s a rout.

January 15 Reaching for 100 per cent

Turnout in Sudan’s historic referendum has been so high that nobody even showed up to vote today at Koggi Kagwada, a spindly polling station bound with tape along a dirt road in central Equatoria state.

It was the last of seven days’ voting, and there was no one left to vote.

The independent electoral body says turnout long ago reached the 60 percent of registered voters required for southern Sudan’s referendum to be valid. By close of play yesterday, 97 percent of those registered in the south had cast their ballots, 53 percent in the north and 91 percent in the slim diaspora vote.

At Koggi Kagwada, drumming and dominoes were in full flow by the time dusk arrived. Ballots were padlocked behind a zinc door, as women served sweet black tea, waiting to be transferred under police guard to the chief’s house for safekeeping for the night. Counting will begin at 8am ‘sharp’ tomorrow.

But after seven days of voting, Koggi Kagwada’s officials were coping with a sense of failure.

Of 103 registered voters, only 102 cast their ballot. At neighbouring Yederu, all 65 registered voters had turned out. Polling centre chairman Wani Charles Peter said officials in search of that satisfactory 100 percent had tracked down the absent voter’s family in the southern capital Juba, who explained he was in hospital in the northern capital Khartoum.

Even then they didn’t seem that happy with the explanation. “We are so disappointed,” said Khamis Emmanuel Lopu, a ballot issuer. “We were waiting until now but that last one has not appeared. We liked that one.”

January 14. A contested territory

Nearly 4m people might be deciding whether they would like to be part of Africa’s newest independent state, but it’s the tiny border territory of Abyei – where no votes are being cast – that is rocking the boat. Abyei had been promised a referendum of its own, on whether to join the north or south, but parties could not agree on who should be eligible to vote and it was shelved.

Home to rival herdsman – the southern Ngok Dinka and the northern Misseriya –many view Abyei as having what campaigner John Prendergast calls “flash-to-bang potential” that could explode into “full-scale war”.

The 10,000-strong UN mission has 939 troops in the zone. So when clashes between police and rival groups of herdsman led to the deaths of at least 35 people this week, according to reports from both sides, traditional leaders, government officials and the United Nations rushed to the negotiating table.

Many feared the tension could escalate, upset the referendum and even the peace, but today they reached a deal. Both sides will pay blood money for those killed in fighting, the Misseriya will provide security on the roads used by the tens of thousands of southerners returning home from the north, and the Misseriya will also be allowed to travel on their migratory herding routes south if conditions are met.

Former US president Jimmy Carter, among thousands of international observers, said northern and southern militaries have been careful not to become involved, others said the two groups were proxies for the two governments. Either way, they have pieced together the peace for now.

January 13. What’s in a name?

The “ern” in Southern Sudan has long signified it is a region, not a state. When referendum results show that southerners have overwhelmingly voted for independence, as they surely will, things will change. Travel permits will become visas, consulates embassies and a nation will be born on July 9 if all goes according to plan.

As for the name, some hope it could plump for Cush, a biblical reference to an ancient kingdom in the region. Nile Republic and New Sudan have also been touted.For Riek Machar, ex-rebel and now vice president of southern Sudan and head of a referendum taskforce charged with everything from arranging security to whether Africa’s newest country should adopt its own currency, the answer is clear. The new name should be South Sudan, he said in his home state, Unity.

Already the national anthem is titled South Sudan Oyee! (Hooray!) It’s not just the country. Oil-rich Unity, one of ten states of the southern region and named from the north, is also keen to find a new name following a likely historic vote for separation over unity. Governor Taban Deng certainly wants to change it, he said, sitting under a mango tree beside a peaceful river.

He has a few up his sleeve, among them Western Upper Nile, the name southerners already give the state, and Leech, after one of nine state counties home to the beloved tamarind tree.Whatever name the state plumps for, Governor Taban said he won’t be plumping for “Separation” no matter how much people might want to underline their vote against unity: he doesn’t want the new south to think the state is getting secessionist ideas of its own.

January 12. Halfway to a probable new state

Three days in, and election officials say about half of southern Sudan’s nearly 4m voters have cast their ballots.

Such a decent turnout guarantees not only high spirits and ululating women, but a sigh of relief for those who feared low turnout might put a stopper in the works for the region’s historic referendum, which is set to split Africa’s biggest country in two.

A vote for secession, which will create an independent south Sudan, requires a minimum 60 percent turnout. Even in the border area, where several outbreaks of fighting have marred the run-up to the polls, turnout is keeping pace. In Unity state, which borders the north and is home to both oil and rebel militias, officials were delighted with the turnout.

Michael Mayil Chol, head of the state’s independent electoral body, said voting so far is “perfect”. Already, 47 percent had voted in 286 polling centres in Unity, one of 10 states of southern Sudan.

Having walked, biked or been bussed in by a government taskforce, so far 229,000 people of 501,120 registered have cast their votes, he said.

Polling has been extended an extra hour, until 6pm, to help mop up the stragglers, who have until the end of Saturday to cast their vote. The election commission still reserves the right to extend voting days, so it’s hard to imagine the 60 percent isn’t already in the bag.

Nyagai Matai, 22, was among those voting at the rickety Biemruok and Sukshabi polling centre on Tuesday, a combination of wood sticks, scrub ground and peaceful officials. .

“It was very dangerous there and they were treating me bad,” she said of her time in the northern capital Khartoum, where she lived for 18 years before returning home. “Now I can have my independence.” Just a few more hundred thousand votes to go, and she might just get it.

January 10. Two hours vs 54 years: real waiting

Elections in most developing countries tend to be chaotic affairs for the press pack. An exotic array of paperwork is required to turn up and register, from vaccination certificates to mother’s maiden name, alongside a blind rush from official to official in search of what’s going on and where.

Security guards seem to know no greater pleasure than to elbow photographers keen for the perfect shot just as they reach for the shutter, and all too often no one is sure just when the head of state will vote in that critical picture postcard moment.

Not so in southern Sudan. Detractors might like to predict it will be the next failed state, but the press handlers for the secession referendum are making sure a better side is shown. Accreditation fees were dropped by half, to $50, and there are so many press conferences that, were one to attend them all, there would barely be any room left to report anything else.

The minister of internal affairs held a press conference in which he presented security chiefs – who in other countries might remain in the shadows – to the press as cool fruit juice was handed out in the shade of trees. The president even voted when everyone said he would.

Donors have taken the unusual step of paying for western media consultants and attached them to ministries, so keen are they on delivering the peace – and publicity for it – that they helped negotiate in 2005.

It is a peace long in coming. Civil war started in 1955, the year before Sudan won independence from Britain and Egypt, in a settlement in which Southern Sudan remained bolted to the Khartoum government in the north.

So when the press complained they had been kept waiting too long in the Sudanese heat for the president to deliver a statement outside his palace, an official quipped to them with just the right words to put them in their place.

“You have waited two hours, we have been waiting 54 years.”

January 9. Water, women and Clooney

Just about the most controversial thing Justice Chan Reec Madut, head of southern Sudan’s independent poll body, could find to say about the opening on Sunday of the independence referendum was that water hadn’t been available in all of the polling stations.

As criticisms go, this is an astounding endorsement for a region many predict is about to become the continent’s newest failed state, let alone able to pull together a poll. Voting opened in all 10 states of southern Sudan, tens of thousands queued calmly in snaked lines. Women were in many cases allotted speedier separate lines, because, as one said: “We have to get back to do the housework.”

“What’s beautiful about this is that no one thought, 100 days ago, that this would happen,” American actor and campaigner George Clooney told me as he wandered around a polling centre in Juba, the southern capital. “You can talk to anybody in the [United Nations] security council, who were here 100 days ago, and everyone of them said ‘listen, this will be delayed, they’ll never pull it together’.”

Polls are hectic things, filled with rules about the right way to seal ballot boxes, ink stains, plastic tags that befuddle the best of data entry experts. Add to that a largely illiterate population – voters pick their choice by pressing an inky finger against an image depicting separation (the palm of a hand) or unity (two hands clasped together) – and chaos could have been on the cards.

“Things have gone spectacularly well today, better than anticipated,” an election observer told me. In a vote likely to go almost unanimously in favour of separation, it will be crucial to make sure the counting, aggregation and announcement of results goes as smoothly as the voting that started today if the result is to be deemed legitimate. The last electoral hurdle will be to ensure poll process is accepted before national authorities and thousands of international election observers. “All they have to do is make sure they don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” said the observer.

Sometimes, however, you get the sense that you might just have an inclination which way even the most independent of independent poll body chairmen might have cast their vote. “The options are clear,” Mr Madut said before the polls started. “It’s either unity, the old Sudan as we know it, or you opt for a separate nation … a place of your own under the sun.”

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