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Far from home, south Sudanese diaspora ready for referendum

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2010-11-23

The southern Sudanese diaspora has begun registering to vote in the historic January referendum on secession. From Kenya to Canada, exiled southerners are confronted with the prospect of securing a new homeland to return to.

Voter registration offices in Southern Sudan have seen an affluence of eager applicants this week, as the region moves closer to a historic referendum that could divide Africa’s largest country in two. 

However, this crucial vote has not just caught the imagination of the country's residents, the nation's wide-spread diaspora are also keen to take part in the poll which could shape the future of their homeland.

The referendum on whether the oil-rich south should separate or remain united with the government of Khartoum in the north is the central provision of the 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war between the two sides.

The armed conflict between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south left an estimated two million dead and four million displaced. Analysts widely expect the war-weary southerners to choose secession in the January 9 poll, and feel that the diaspora also hold this viewpoint. The semi-autonomous government of South Sudan says there are some five million eligible voters for the referendum.

High hopes for poll

This key voting bloc outside the country is looking to make its voice heard. The south Sudanese diaspora, exiled in far-off places like London and Sydney, anxiously await the vote, harbouring hopes that the referendum will take place on time and that it will lead to peace in their devastated homeland.

Aside from the 1.7 million who remain displaced within Sundan’s borders, there are around 368,000 Sudanese living outside the country, according to the latest figures from the United Nations refugee agency. They are exiled as a result of the civil war, but also the more recent violence in the region of Darfur.

Registration and voting has been planned in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States: eight countries that the independent Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) considers to have the largest communities of south Sudanese outside the country.

From London to Calgary, Sudanese prepare to vote

“There was very good turnout in London the first day,” said Saif Nemir of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the inter-governmental body that was asked by the SSRC to provide logistical support for overseas registration and voting.

Calgary and Toronto are hosting the two polling stations open in Canada. Around 100 people had registered at the centre in Calgary on Tuesday morning. The city counts a south Sudanese community that hovers around 3,000 people, according to Joseph Malok, head of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) mission there.
DeDe Marial Lok, 29, a former soldier for the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lives in Edmonton, but said he was making plans to register in Calgary, three hours away by car. “The long distances and the Canadian winter are two obstacles to people who want to register and eventually vote in January,” Lok said.

Lok also says fellow expats are worried about asking for time off from their employers, who may not understand or care about a referendum that is taking place so far away. He said that he was organising a meeting at Edmonton’s Africa Centre next Saturday to see how many people were willing to charter a bus to Calgary.

Rumours of fraud and suspicion abound

In Uganda, which the UN says received over 170,000 Sudanese refugees, rumours of fraud and boycott brought confusion to the first days of voter registration. Reports that the Sudanese embassy in Uganda has been issuing identity cards to non-southern Sudanese to allow them to register were followed by conflicting messages over whether the electoral process should be boycotted in the country.

Jeremy Haslam, head of the organising IOM group in Uganda said that all registration offices in Uganda were open on Wednesday and were receiving south Sudanese, but said he could not comment on what effects, if any, the rumours of fraud had had on turnout.

The problems in Uganda underscore the deep-seated suspicion of Khartoum that Sudanese have carried with them from the war-torn south to places like Uganda and the snowy, urban hubs of western Canada.

According to GoSS representative Malok, the majority of south Sudanese who have settled in North America will return home if the region votes for independence: “We still fear the war will return, but everybody wants to contribute to rebuilding the south.”

Date created : 2010-11-17


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