JUBA, (AFP) – South Sudan president Salva Kiir appealed to southerners to sign up en masse as registration kicked off on Monday for a January referendum that may lead to the partition of Africa’s largest country.
After a three-month delay, the registration process began with an air of celebration in the south, while it was marked with indifference in the mainly Muslim north, where stores were closed for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Kiir appeared early at a Juba registration centre outside a memorial to John Garang, who led the mostly Christian south to a 2005 peace deal that ended a 22-year war with the north before he died in a helicopter crash.
“A referendum happens only once. People must come out en masse otherwise it would mean people fought and died for nothing,” the leader of the autonomous south said, as hundreds lined up outside the office.
Loudspeakers fitted on cars that were driven around the southern capital’s streets blared appeals to voters against the backdrop of a song with the refrain: “We are heading towards the promised land.”
“This is a historic moment for south Sudan. I cannot wait to get on the voting list and vote in the referendum,” said Gabriel Aleu, a 20-year-old.
Anneno Faith, who runs a clothing stall in Juba, said: “I have registered and I am looking forward to voting. We are looking forward to freedom, to go forward to be independent.”
Philip Maboir, a student who held up his ink-stained finger, said he was “excited that I am taking part in something to decide not only my future, but also of so many other southern Sudanese to come.”
The referendum, part of the 2005 deal that also created a power-sharing government with Kiir as vice president to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is viewed as a gateway to freedom in the south.
Matay Dar, 29, was the first to get his voter registration card in Nyal, a remote town in the oil-rich southern Unity State, when the centre opened.
“We need to separate from the north. They use our resources but we don’t get any benefits,” Dar said.
The countdown to the vote on January 9 is seen with apprehension in the north.
In Khartoum, registration centres were empty as many southerners who live in the Sudanese capital made the trip south to enroll.
“We expect the process to start very slowly but they will catch up and they will build the momentum after a couple of days and things should run more smoothly,” said Denis Kadima, director of the UN Integrated Referendum and Electoral Division.
Despite the delay in the two-week registration process, the southern government believes it will be successful now that it has started.
“The government of southern Sudan is absolutely confident that we are able to have our people register on time,” southern information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told AFP.
There are 2,794 voter registration centres in the country, 2,629 of them in the south.
About five million south Sudanese are eligible to register for the vote, including an estimated 500,000 to two million who live abroad, according to UN estimates.
Tension still hangs over the process, although the African Union said on Monday that the north and south have agreed to settle key issues such as border demarcation and trade barriers.
“The parties have committed themselves to maintaining a ‘soft border?, which will permit unhindered economic and social activity and interaction, which will be essential for economic prosperity and harmony between the north and the south,” said an AU statement.
North and south also pledged to avoid action or support groups “that would undermine the security of the other,” it said.
But both sides have traded accusations over the disputed border recently, and northern and southern troops exchanged fire at the end of October in a neutral zone between Sennar state in the north and southern Upper Nile state.
Moses Obi, the chief commander of the United Nations mission in Sudan, said on Monday that both sides agreed the clash was an isolated incident caused by the lack of a clearly demarcated boundary.
“We are convinced that there has been no significant build-up along the common boundary line,” he added, referring to the ceasefire zone drawn up in 2005.
Registration offices will remain open until December 1 for the vote, which is to be held on the same day as a referendum in the oil-rich Abyei region, with voters there choosing to stay with the north or go with the south.