South Sudan’s Referendum on Independence: A Solution to Everything?

Today is January 9th, 2011: the first of seven days of voting in South Sudan’s referendum on secession from the North. Effectively already self-ruling, South Sudan will most likely become the world’s newest country in July, six months after the referendum, as agreed in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, provided that 60% of the registered voters turn out and vote for separation.

Back on January 4th, when I returned to Juba (capital of South Sudan, where I’ve been living since September 1st) from three weeks of leave in Canada, I saw President Omar Bashir land, spend some time on the airstrip, and leave in a motorcade. He was making his final attempt to sway voters to vote for unity with the North, and also promising to support the South even if they vote for independence, a statement most people here feel was a total lie.

Omar Bashir's motorcade leaves Juba Airport

Things have remained calm here in Juba, despite earlier worries that the security situation might deteriorate as January 9th approached. Although the border with the North is seeing some problems, it looks like most of the South will remain stable for the moment.

On the 7th, everyone in Juba was well aware of the two days to go before the start of the referendum:

Analog countdown to South Sudan referendum
Digital countdown to South Sudan referendum

The digital countdown clock is somewhat symbolic of South Sudan’s present state of development: the clock was paid for by a Kenyan bank (the economy here is dominated by foreign-owned businesses), has suffered constant technical glitches and breakdowns since being installed in October (nearly everything in South Sudan seems to be dysfunctional to some extent), and was counting toward the great event of the referendum (seen as the culmination of a long struggle, an event that will completely change this country for the better). While South Sudan is seeing rapid development in some ways, especially in terms of infrastructure in urban areas like Juba, the norm in this country remains an agrarian one where livestock are often seen roaming the streets without any fear of the big Toyota LandCruisers trying to get from A to B (but never in a straight line).

Cattle in Juba

This morning I went with some colleagues to the largest polling station here in Juba. Along the Airport-Ministries Road, a man in a suit carried a cross around which he had wrapped the flag of South Sudan.

Secession supporter on Airport-Ministries Road in Juba

The largest polling site is at the Dr John Garang Mausoleum, where the biggest hero of the long South Sudan struggle was laid to rest after dying in a helicopter crash. The officials at the gate allowed us in, even though we’re neither elections observers nor journalists, and we were free to walk around the grounds and take photos of it all. I was really annoyed at myself for deciding to bring only my small point-and-shoot camera, and not the dSLR, as this turned out to be a rare opportunity to take photos very freely here in Juba.

Line-up at the polling station:

Queue of referendum voters at Dr John Garang Mausoleum, Juba

Many news agencies set up on-site to do live broadcasts:

News stations at the referendum polling site

Police were on hand:

Police presence at referendum polling site

We bumped into one of my security guards, who showed us the instruction sheet for voting:

Instructions for voting in the referendum

Dr John Garang’s tomb:

Dr John Garang's tomb, Juba

The covered area is where the people actually cast their votes:

Chris in front of polling station

Receiving a blank ballot:

Receiving a blank paper ballot

Many people were gathered in groups on the expansive mausoleum grounds, singing and dancing songs of independence and waving the flag of South Sudan:

Flag of South Sudan

People in Juba remain in a happy, even festive, mood, but how long will this last? Six months from now, the South will almost certainly become an independent state, but what differences will the people of South Sudan really see in their day-to-day lives? Time and again in other countries, people have been led to believe that a change of government, or the adoption of democratic voting system, or the creation of an independent state, will solve all their problems and provide an opportunity to break with the past. Here in South Sudan the statements echoed by politicians and citizens alike are all too familiar: independence will bring freedom, prosperity, etc., etc., etc.

But will independence decrease the number of children in the police and military?

Young South Sudan policeman

Will an independent South Sudan have fewer soldiers walking the streets in the day and drunkenly beating people at night? (The three military police pictured below are just random soldiers; this statement doesn’t apply to them in particular)

Three SPLA military police

Will the new state of South Sudan change the attitude of South Sudanese toward their environment and develop systems to deal with the large quantities of trash that have begun collecting in even remote areas of the country?

Litter in the street, typical scenery in Juba

Will there be better public transport and more middle class citizens able to afford vehicles, rather than an elite few holding the keys to shiny luxury SUVs, while the carcasses of old cars remain a standard roadside landscape feature?

Abandoned car in Juba

Will the situation in South Sudan improve so that there will be fewer poverty-driven criminal acts, and fewer people sent to jail?

Juba Prison

Will independence bring more security and stability to the average family, and decrease the market demand for barbed wire and razor wire?

Razor wire
Toad on barbed wire

In six months, when independence becomes official, or in a year’s time, when the new state should be moving from a crawl to a walk, will South Sudanese find themselves living in the same difficult conditions or will they have better homes?

Typical tukul in Juba

Will the average South Sudanese find himself walking to a shop to watch the big football match of his favourite English Premier League team, or will he be able to watch it in his own family home with city power lighting his house and powering his television?

Sunset in a wealthier Juba neighbourhood with city electricity

Will the unbelievably low literacy rate in South Sudan rise with independence, or will people continue to ignore the fact that trucks roll down the street supposedly selling hydroperoxyl (HO2) when they’re really selling water (H2O)?

A common spelling error on water tankers in Juba

Will cases of drunk driving decrease after independence or will it continue as a normal practice among those who have the opportunity and ability to drive?

Night driving in Juba

Will the big UN presence in South Sudan remain, or will the UN reduce its forces by its own choice or that of the government of the new state?

On the UNMIS base in Juba, South Sudan

Will an independent South Sudan undergo development at an acceptable pace, gradually eliminating the need for the many international NGOs operating in the country? Or will these NGOs have to stay for many years to come, using money from foreign donors to import and transport all sorts of supplies to meet the needs of the population, such as this planeload of drugs I organised in November which was paid for by the European Commission?

Loading a 5 tonne cargo plane with drugs at Juba Airport
Loading a 5 tonne cargo plane with drugs at Juba Airport

It’s very interesting to be here in South Sudan at this time, to witness history in the making, but I can’t help thinking of what lies down the road for a country whose people hold such high expectations of what independence will bring them. While I agree that the South deserves to become an independent state, the crisis of expectations that probably lies in this country’s future may not see so many people smiling as I saw today. I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.