This Sunday, 9 January, voters from Africa’s largest country will go to the polls to determine the fate of their nation.
Over a seven day period, almost four million people will vote on whether Sudan should split into two countries.
In 2005, the country signed a peace agreement ending 20 years of brutal civil war between north and south. The fighting claimed the lives of two million people and displaced four million. This week’s referendum is the final step in the peace process.
Sara Lukey-Smith from the UK is working in Juba, South Sudan, for World Vision. In this blog, Sara gives a unique insight into life on the ground as voting gets under way.
My name is Sara Lukey Smith and I have been in Juba working for World Vision for four months now. I’m here at a historic phase – I may witness the creation of a new country right before my very eyes.
The past weeks and months have been framed by the referendum. It dominates all walks of life – whether you open up the newspapers, go online, switch on the radio or simply talk to people. The government and its population are preparing for this vote, as is the international community – a flow of high-level foreign delegations have passed through, adding their voice. With two days to go there’s a palpable sense of anticipation amongst the people, indeed as I write this blog a parade of vehicles is processing down the road past our office, pumping out music.
With the start of the campaigning period, posters and billboards sprung up around Juba. Posters were plastered onto rickety fences and the back windows of matatus (the mini-buses that ferry people around town). People have now started attaching cardboard hands to their cars – a flat palm is the symbol that will be used on the ballot papers to signal a vote for separation. And this simple fact brings me back to the focus of my work here. 85% of adults in Southern Sudan are illiterate, there is one teacher for every 1,000 primary school students. It is estimated that only 20% of the population have access to basic services and 80% of these basic services are delivered by NGOs. People often say that numbers have lost their ability to shock, but I still find these statistics pretty powerful. The challenges that Southern Sudan will continue to face, whether or not it secedes, are considerable.
Over the past weeks well over 100,000 people have returned to Southern Sudan to vote in the referendum, increasing pressure on these basic services. I visited some of these returnees just before Christmas, currently living in a ‘transit camp’ before being settled with new land. I was shocked by the conditions of this camp, there were thousands of people huddled together in a very small place. The majority were sleeping out in the open with belongings piled up beside them. When speaking to them they talked of giving up homes and jobs in Khartoum because they decided it was time to ‘come home and be part of a new Southern Sudan’. World Vision is working alongside the government, UN agencies and other NGOs to support the reintegration of these returnees – including through the provision of shelter, health care, food and non-food items. As World Vision we have been working in Southern Sudan for over twenty years – we have worked alongside communities throughout the war and now in peace. NGOs like World Vision are vital to Southern Sudan, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
At the same time we must recognise how far things have come – after decades of civil war which claimed the lives of over two million people, Southern Sudan now has peace. Even in the four months I’ve been here, I’ve seen the changes in Juba, businesses are being established and roads are being constructed.
You may question why all this matters, if you’re thousands of miles away in the UK. Indeed, I think a lot of my friends wonder what I am doing out here, and when I was at home for Christmas newspaper headlines were scandalising the fact that overseas aid spending is rising when other government departments are having to cut back. This made me pause, yet I always come back to the same conclusion – I am fortunate enough to be born in a country where the vast majority of people don’t have to struggle for survival and so we have an obligation to look after others, more so than ever in a globalised world.