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SUDAN: “Tone down the rhetoric” urges top UN official
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Nov 23, 2010 - 7:03:54 AM

SUDAN: “Tone down the rhetoric” urges top UN official

A Southern Sudanese registers for the January referendum
JUBA, 23 November 2010 (IRIN) - A senior UN official has called on leaders in Northern and semi-autonomous Southern Sudan not to incite tension as Southerners register for a January referendum that is likely to lead to secession.

Speaking in Khartoum on 22 November, Benjamin Mkapa, who chairs UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel on the Referenda* in Sudan, expressed concern about a low turnout of registrants in the North.

“The rhetoric by all parties must also be toned down – I repeat, the rhetoric by all parties must also be toned down - something we warned about during our last visit to Sudan. Only then will the public feel secure enough to turn out to register and to vote, without repercussions, wherever they live,” Mkapa told a news conference in the capital.

The former Tanzanian president said he had received reports of Southern leaders “encouraging people not to register and vote outside Southern Sudan”. Registration is also taking place in Australia, Canada, the US, UK, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya.

Mkapa attributed the “extremely low turnout” in the North to the fact that “many Southern Sudanese appear uninterested or unwilling to register”, not least because of a “lack of public information about the process”, as well as long distances to registration centres.

“Outside the country, we received some disturbing reports of intimidation and threats against both International Organization for Migration workers staffing the voter registration centres and Southern Sudanese attempting to register. We urge the parties to help ensure that everyone who wants to register can do so without fear,” said Mkapa.

In Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, which has had a semi-autonomous status with its own government since the 2005 accord to end decades of civil war, mistrust was evident.

“You cannot rule out a last-minute attempt by the North to disrupt the process,” said one observer, asking not to be identified. “Already there are people in Khartoum who are pointing fingers at those perceived to have given away the South.”

There have been some shortages of materials in the registration process, which began on 15 November and ends on 1 December, according to sources in Juba. There was also a boycott in some villages in Eastern Equatoria, a reduced number of women registering in Rumbek state, and claims that some staff had not been paid.

“Each centre has 10 percent more materials to cover emergencies,” Achier Deng Akol, head of operations at the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, said. “Where materials have run out, we have sent more, but these are isolated cases.”

Speaking at a news conference, he added: “We appeal to our people who used to walk during the struggle [civil war] to bear with us and walk to the centres... those people boycotting because of previous political differences are not doing the country any good.”

Raising awareness

Samuel Machiar Riek, the bureau’s head of public outreach, conceded that “public awareness is not adequate yet” but said a media committee had been set up to improve voter education across Southern Sudan.

Underfunding has been another problem, according to the Enough Project, a Washington DC-based advocacy organization, which reported that the governments in Khartoum and Juba had only released US$179 million of the $370 million required by the bureau.

“Without the necessary funding, preparation for the referendum, including voter education and the hiring, training, and deployment of staff, will likely continue to be insufficient, with potentially serious ramifications for the conduct of the referendum,” it warned.

But Lorna Merekaje, secretary-general of the Sudan Domestic Election Monitoring and Observation Programme (SuDEMOP) said registration in the South had generally gone well.

“The process started late, but five days into it, it is peaceful and calm,” she told IRIN. “The problems that had been reported were isolated,” she added. Her organization has deployed hundreds of observers.

“Overall, SuDEMOP specialized observers have not reported major incidents of violence or security lapses during the first week of registration, with the notable exception of the aerial bombing that occurred in Aweil North,” SuDEMOP said in a report issued on 21 November. Southern Sudanese officials have accepted that the incident was a genuine mistake by the North’s air force, which was apparently targeting Darfur rebels.

Daily influx

The referendum has led to a large movement of people from the North to the South. In Unity State, for example, about 1,000 people have been arriving daily since the beginning of November, according to aid workers.

“We have made contingency plans for all flashpoints,” said Giovanni Bosco, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Southern Sudan. “We are prepositioning stocks and preparing for possible movements of people.”

Good harvests are expected in the South, according to USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network. But in its November outlook, it warned that “should significant post-referendum insecurity occur, the resulting displacement and market disruption could drive needs to an unprecedented level”.

On the streets of Juba, excitement is high. Many residents told IRIN they were looking forward to the vote, which they expected to lead to secession. On 20 November, churches organized processions through the town, marking a day of prayer for the referendum.

“2.5 million lives paid for our freedom,” proclaims a poster at the John Garang mausoleum in central Juba. “Our heroes and heroines did not die in vain.”

*A separate referendum is scheduled in January for Abyei to determine whether the flashpoint borderland territory joins Southern Sudan or retains its special status in the North. The ramifications of serious delays in this referendum’s preparation will be the subject of a forthcoming IRIN article.

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