Welcome to south Sudan, which could soon be the world’s newest countryby Tristan McConnell / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Birth of a nation? Women queue outside a voter registration centre in southern Sudan
“There is no trust between the north and the south. Any delay will cause a crisis, suspicion is already rising. People want the referendum to come now,” Samuel Aban Deng told me as we sat in the neatly swept dirt courtyard of his family compound in Malakal, a town on the banks of the Nile. We were discussing the only thing anyone in south Sudan wants to talk about: the vote, due on 9th January, that is expected to split Africa’s biggest country and give birth to the world’s newest one. A referendum on southern independence was key to the internationally-backed peace deal in 2005, ending the last round of Sudan’s civil war which left some 2m dead and forced 4m to flee their homes. But there are doubts that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes) would honour the agreement.
As a senior courtier to the Shilluk tribal king, Deng’s modest home is grand compared with most in the town; the average person in south Sudan lives on less than £1 per day. Eagerness for independence among people here is deep-rooted: the British colonial rulers left in 1956, but southerners, who are mostly black with Christian or traditional beliefs and now number 9m, feel they were replaced by Arab Muslim ones from the north, based in Khartoum. “We were cheated,” Angelo Othou, a rheumy-eyed 75-year-old told me. His right index finger was stained blue with indelible ink, proof that he had registered to vote in the referendum.
Malakal is a place where north and south meet. In the market southern customers buy goods imported from the north, but there have been more deadly exchanges in the past. In 2006 and 2009, the northern and southern armies, barracked at either end of town, traded mortars, tank and gunfire, killing hundreds.
Today, signs of change are everywhere. At the broken quayside I saw piles of possessions belonging to arriving southerners who have decided it was time to come home. For some, it was threats from neighbours and officials in Khartoum that drove them south; for others, the chance to vote and be part of their new country’s birth. In the market, I found Arab traders warily letting their stocks dwindle, sending wives and children north and preparing to close up shop,…