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.

Assorted pictures of Juba, South Sudan

My work in Juba has kept me far too busy to maintain this blog properly, though I hope to catch up a little during my current three week vacation (in Canada!). Here are some random photos I took in my first month and a half in Juba:

Airport-Ministries Road, looking toward the airport:

Airport-Ministries Road, Juba

A UNMIS water truck distributing some drinking water to locals at the side of the road:

UNMIS water truck, Juba

The Merlin compound, where I live and work:

Merlin compound, Juba

My desk on a good day:

My office

I gave a malaria test to one of my staff and it came out positive:

Paracheck malaria test

A side street in Juba:

Bicycle flowers

Abandoned car on a side street in Juba:

Abandoned car in Juba

A tukul (traditional home):

Tukul in Juba

One of several ginormous cargo planes that lands at Juba Airport regularly:

Cargo airplane over Juba

Great name for a company:

ESP International

Important advice in a restaurant washroom:

Toilet instructions

The sunset as seen from outside our compound:

Sunset in Juba

To mark the 61st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese embassy organised a truly amazing talent show with people flown all the way from China for the event, including gymnasts, dancers, musicians, and even a magician who gave me and a friend 10 Sudanese Pounds!

61st Anniversary of PRC
61st Anniversary of PRC
61st Anniversary of PRC
61st Anniversary of PRC

Arriving in Juba, and a few UNMIS photos

I left DR Congo at the end of August, and after 3 nights in Nairobi I was airborne en route to South Sudan to begin a new contract as a logistician in the capital city, Juba. For a few minutes, the late-morning shadow of our Canadair Regional Jet on the clouds had a crazy circle of sunlight around it:

Plane shadow

Flying over South Sudan:

Flying over South Sudan

We flew over the Nile River as we approached Juba, which is in the background in this photo:

Nile River with Juba in background

The outskirts of Juba, as the plane spun around to line itself up for landing:

Outskirts of Juba

More Juba outskirts as seen from the sky:

Approaching Juba

On that first evening, some colleagues took me for a walk down to the UNMIS (UN Mission in Sudan) base, which is not far from our compound, and is quite big. On the UNMIS base, there’s a small mosquito breeding ground with a referendum paddlewheel ferry. The sign is a reference to the January 2011 referendum that will (99.9% sure) bring independence for this part of Sudan.

South Sudan referendum barge

The entire country is littered with landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO), so there are many demining groups including several military demining groups such as Bangladesh Demining, whose short-form name doesn’t work so well in English:

Bangladesh Demining

There are often dozens of massive storks on the UNMIS compound, perched atop the lampposts or the ginormous UNMIS fuel tanks.

Storks at UNMIS, Juba

The UNMIS military force in Juba is composed of mainly Bangladeshi and Indian soldiers. For some reason, the Bangladesh Battalion entry in the UNMIS base was lit up with Christmas lights a few weeks ago:

UNMIS Bangladesh Battalion

Bangladesh Deminers:

Bangladesh Demining

UN helicopters piloted by old hands from Eastern Europe often fly over my home, like this one:

UNMIS helicopter over Juba

The work here is very tough, mainly because of the long hours required to get a small percentage of my tasks completed each day, so I haven’t had much time over these past two months to spend on blog posts or personal emails, but hopefully I’ll manage to do so soon.

It’s now been 15 weeks since my last R&R break, and my next one is scheduled for mid-December by which point I will have worked 5 months without more than 2 consecutive days off. Definitely starting to get pretty tired, but still plodding along.