South Sudan turns out in force to register for historic vote
RUBEKE, Sudan — Long lines of southern Sudanese snaked down a red-earth forest track, waiting their turn to register for a historic vote that will decide whether their underdeveloped region becomes the world's newest independent nation.
"This is our moment to decide our future," said pregnant mother Mary Sorubu, waiting with child in hand to register at the simple tin-shack centre that serves the village of Rubeke.
"We know how important the process is, because, if this is done properly, the actual vote will be recognised around the world."
Many in the remote farmland and lush forests close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held up ink-stained fingers as proof they had already registered for the vote scheduled for January 9.
All along the rough and rutted mud track towards the DRC border, small but busy registration centres have been set up in thatched huts, school rooms or beneath shady mango trees.
"The people are eager to be taking part," said Ndole Ndoromo, head of the referendum bureau for Central Equatoria state's Yei county, where Rubeke is situated.
"The process has been peaceful and we are pleased with the way it is progressing."
Many centres have observers monitoring the process, as well as village elders charged with verifying the eligibility to vote of those wishing to register.
"I am here to make sure only those who are allowed to vote actually register," said one elder, David Tombe, dressed in the bright yellow bib of a referendum official.
"Sometimes there are the excitable youth who want to take part but who are not yet 18, or those who may not really be southerners. So we can help check to ask who their family are and from where they have come."
Registration in the south has been "very impressive," especially in urban areas, referendum officials say.
"There has been a very good reaction and the process has gone peacefully with no reports of any violence," said Aleu Garang Aleu, a spokesman for the Southern Sudanese Referendum Bureau, which is running the vote in the south.
"We are gathering updates of the numbers who have registered all the time, and we estimate from the samples received that at least 1.3 million people have registered across the 10 states of the south."
Southern regional president Salva Kiir began the registration process on November 15, enrolling to vote at a centre in the regional capital Juba outside a memorial to the late John Garang, who led the south to the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of war with the north.
In Central Equatoria, large numbers have been registering, even in remote rural areas.
"Some centres have run out already of the registration books they were issued with, because the demand has been so high," said Ndoromo.
"As soon as we realised this was happening, we called for more books to be brought, so the delay for those centres that ran out should not be long."
As the clock ticks down to polling day, religious leaders have called for calm.
"Whether the outcome is unity or secession, Sudan will never be the same again because the people have exercised their free and democratic choice," said the Catholic Bishop of Yei, Erkolano Lodu Tombe, speaking at a giant open-air mass in the town on Sunday.
"Manipulation of the referendum is unethical and immoral... If the referendum proves to be flawed or manipulated, this is likely to lead to uncertainty, instability and even violence," he said.
In north Sudan, voter registration at the 165 centres set up for displaced southerners has been far lower, officials say.
On Sunday, the Khartoum state government and referendum commission agreed to form a "joint committee" to try to improve the numbers registering.
Benjamin Mkapa, former president of Tanzania and chair of the UN secretary general's panel on the referendum, told a Khartoum news conference on Monday that registration in the north "remains extremely low."
He pointed to "lack of public information," "long distances between registration centres" and "uncertainty on the southerners' future status in the north."
Across Sudan and among the diaspora abroad, around five million southerners are estimated to be eligible to vote.
There are 2,794 voter registration centres inside Sudan, 2,629 of them in the south. They will remain open until December 1.
Southern and northern leaders have accused each other of intimidating voters ahead of the referendum.