Washington, D.C. - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - The countdown has begun.
Millions of Southern Sudanese will flock to vote Jan. 9 on a referendum that will decide if Sudan – the largest country in Africa – will split into two countries.
Across the U.S., an estimated 50,000 Southern Sudanese will turn out to vote in Phoenix; Omaha, Neb.; Dallas; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn., and Boston.
Roughly 900 Sudanese in the Washington area will cast their votes in a half-furnished building in Alexandra, Va. Some will come to the area from as far as Maine.
The referendum is part of the 2005 peace agreement between the northern and southern regions of Sudan. Much of the fighting pitted the more economically developed and Arab Muslim North against the less wealthy South, which has a majority black African population that practices indigenous and Christian religions. Most of the oil resources are in the South.
Nearly 900 Sudanese registered to vote for the referendum in the Alexandria, Va. It is one out of seven centers that were opened in the U.S. by the International Organization for Migration. SHFWire Photo by Elvia Malagon
The compromise came about after two civil wars that lasted decades. Although 80 percent of the border has been decided, there are still five disputed areas.
Many Sudanese like Parek Maduot, a construction manager who lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, are anxiously awaiting the day.
Maduot, 35, was one of the organizers of a December rally to raise awareness for the referendum.
“I hope that the ballot will happen in a peaceful environment,” he said.
Maduot came to the U.S. in 1994 to go to school. He still has family in Sudan.
In October, Sudanese groups had a Sudan Walk of Freedom to raise awareness about issues in the country and the registration process for the referendum.
Registration began Nov. 16 and ended Dec. 8 in Phoenix, Omaha and Washington. Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Nashville and Boston opened their registration centers Dec. 6 and will stay open until Dec. 22.
Agnes Oswaha from the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the United States said the registration in Washington went smoothly.
The biggest issue was the distance some had to travel to Alexandria, a Washington suburb. At first, only three registration sites opened in the United States, but the other registration sites opened later to accommodate Sudanese living in those parts of the country.
The International Organization for Migration, with the help of the Government of Southern Sudan, operated the registration and voting centers.
IOM’s public information officer, Sameera Ali, said the organization is neutral and did not advocate for unity or secession.
“Our bottom line is that every person able to vote can,” she said.
People are required to vote where they registered, which is something Oswaha said the organizations have stressed to the community. Sixty percent of registered voters in Sudan and elsewhere must turn out to vote or the referendum will not decide the issue. A snow storm or bad weather in some U.S. cities could make it difficult for Sudanese to get to voting centers.
Ezekiel Lol Gatkuouth, head of the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the United States, said registration has gone well, although it was a challenge to complete the process on time. He expects the voting to go smoothly.
Still, there have been problems leading to the referendum, which is less than a month away.
Registration has been delayed in most centers.
Sean Carberry, senior correspondent with America Abroad Media, said during an interview on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show on WAMU-FM that many Southern Sudanese have high expectations of what will happen after the referendum.
“You aren’t going to see pavement and Internet overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take years.”
Many Sudanese like Maduot fear violence will spread when the referendum results are in.
Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of the Embassy of Sudan, and Gatkuouth said the government is hoping for a peaceful referendum next month.
“The primary objective of the peace agreement is to ensure lasting peace,” Mohamed said.
Rebecca Deng, the head of the Washington-area registration and voting center in Alexandria, continues to work in the center with her staff of 62, verifying applications and names.
Deng, a master student at Cornerstone University in Michigan, is taking online classes while she works at the center.
She is from Southern Sudan and said the referendum is important and that she wanted to be a part of it.
“I thought this would be a really good experience,” she said.
Next week, the IOM will train the 62 workers on the procedures to follow during the voting period.
Southern Sudanese throughout the world will have one week to cast their votes.
The southern and northern parts of Sudan will face great challenges after the referendum.
Maduot, a construction manager, said he would consider going back to Southern Sudan to use his knowledge to help with infrastructure engineering. But for now he said he has “guarded optimism” about the outcome of the vote.
“The political environment is tense,” he said. “Our will as a people has to be guarded.”