UN Gears up for the South Sudan Referendum

Much is riding on the South Sudan independence referendum scheduled for January 2011. The outcome of vote could spark a new conflict. Journalist Maggie Fick visits a contentious southern district to watch preparations.

Pete Muller/AP
In this Aug. 9 photo, members and supporters of the Southern Sudan Youth Forum for Referendum march through the southern Sudan capital of Juba. Southern Sudan is eagerly awaiting a January vote that could break Africa's largest country into two.

Earlier this week, I flew to Mundri, in the fertile green state of Western Equatoria, to attend the United Nations Mission in Sudan’s unveiling of its first “county referendum base.” Per the request of the National Congress Party and the south’s ruling SPLM, the UN is upping its support and assistance to the referendum process. Part of this bigger effort is establishing a presence in each of the south’s 79 counties, a step that clearly shows the UN will be playing a bigger role in pulling off the southern vote—from a technical and logistical standpoint—than it did in supporting the nationwide elections in April.

The real takeaway, however, from the day trip to Mundri occurred during the speeches given by various southern government officials and by David Gressly, the top U.N. official in the south. Crammed into a sweltering white plastic tent, which will become one of the makeshift offices at the county base, these officials had strong messages about the referendum. The Governor of Western Equatoria State Joseph Bakosoro urged—more like ordered—the citizens of his state to “register and vote,” then emphasized that everyone must “vote wisely.” “Let us not repeat any mistakes,” the governor said. “The mistake we [could] repeat will be a final mistake that you will regret all of your life and for the life of your children,” the governor said, recalling history. Meanwhile, the southern government’s minister of cabinet affairs Kosti Manibe said that if the referendum vote didn’t occur on time (on January 9 to be exact), then the south would have to opt for a “plan B.” The minister didn’t go into the details of what this plan would entail.

Finally, as if to reassure the crowd, the U.N.’s Gressly begin his address by announcing that “the referendum is real.” In other words, the UN is preparing for Plan A. Later, while speaking with reporters, Gressly conceded that "there are a lot of decisions pending," but argued that "it would be wrong to do anything but move ahead." The U.N. plans to pitch tents, build fences, and deploy staff to hastily constructed referendum bases in 63 entirely new locations across the south in the coming months.

Stay tuned for more on the UN’s expanded effort to help pull off the referendum in time.

Maggie Fick is a journalist based in Juba in southern Sudan and blogs for UN Dispatch

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