Conflict and Fragility


Southern Sudan's Self-Determination Referendum - Two narratives

15 Feb 2011 - 15:16

The recent vote on whether Southern Sudan will remain part of a united Sudan or found its own state has left me confused. Having had the opportunity to witness this event firsthand, the euphoria and outcries of relief that dominate preliminary reflections on the process make me feel somewhat uncomfortable. In an attempt to do justice to my personal experiences and perceptions, I would like to present two narratives, both of which match my direct and indirect observations. Nevertheless, each narrative gives a very different impression of what 'really' happened during this historic week in January.(1)

In narrative number one, the referendum was a great success. Despite a huge turnout, particularly during the first two days of polling, the process was conducted in an orderly manner, with people patiently waiting in line for hours and hours to cast their vote. In the vast majority of referendum centers, the staff was well-trained and closely following procedures. Their level of professionalism and dedication was, in fact, quite impressive. The polling materials they had to work with were delivered to the centers on time and were generally functioning properly. Given Southern Sudan's high illiteracy rates, the dramatic lack of infrastructure, the short preparation period and the tense political environment in which the referendum had to be organized, this is a remarkable achievement.

On the whole, the uniformed police officers present at the referendum centers behaved properly and did not negatively interfere in the process. With the exception of the fighting in Abyei, there were no major security incidents, nor did the referendum prompt a return to hostilities between North and Southern Sudan. A number of international press agencies reportedly even started to retrieve their journalists from Sudan after the third day of polling because there was 'nothing to report', illustrating the general atmosphere of tranquility. Furthermore, the unambiguous result and massive voter turnout thwart any doubt about the dominant sentiment in the South, that is, a strong desire to break away from the North. In sum, those who were painting gloomy pictures about the referendum and expected the worst have been proven wrong!

Now, let's turn to narrative number two. In this narrative, the referendum exposed a disturbed relationship between the Southern Sudanese state and its citizens. In the run-up to the voting process, the unity option and its implications were not openly discussed. Unity campaigning was virtually absent. One could, as Mareike Schomerus observed in her contribution to a recent debate initiated by the Royal African Society, even speak of an "environment of fear", in which people were discouraged to speak their mind and were simply instructed to come and vote and told what to vote for.

During the polling process, the secrecy of the vote was far from guaranteed. In a large number of centers, overactive chairmen joined every single person in the booth to help thumbprint the ballot. In others, the facilities did not accommodate private decision making. In various areas in Southern Sudan, local chiefs, the SPLM, the police and plain clothed security officials were involved in identifying and mobilizing people who had yet to cast their vote, particularly towards the end of the week. Some centers were keeping separate lists with the names of these 'no-shows' to facilitate this search. The counting of the ballots following the last day of polling was, in several places, not only witnessed by domestic, party and international observers, but also by plain clothed security officers, some of whom engaged in discussions on the proceedings so energetically that it was difficult to tell them apart from the centers' regular staff. In sum, the referendum demonstrated a worrisome lack of political space in Southern Sudan, which makes one wonder about how the future independent state will be governed.

Again, paradoxically, the two narratives described above both go some way in representing an honest reflection of how I have experienced the referendum process; though neither captures the whole story. But while narrative number one prevails in assessments of the event, few have publicly acknowledged the elements which make up the second narrative.

The Southern Sudanese authorities deserve support in their efforts to enact the aspiration of a vast majority of southerners to live in a sovereign state. Still, the way in which January's voting was conducted gives good reason to be concerned about the nature of this nascent polity. Exactly where in the referendum did the people come in? It is up to Southern Sudan's current and future leaders to try and shy away from the authoritative and exclusionary type of politics of which it has tirelessly accused the Khartoum government. The Southern Sudanese people cherish high expectations of what the future holds. Let's hope that they will get ample opportunity to help shape that future.

Jort Hemmer is a research fellow at the Conflict Research Unit (CRU) of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations 'Clingendael'

(1) I am much indebted to Mareike Schomerus, as she not only encouraged me to write down my thoughts on the referendum process, but also inspired the decision to use narratives in my effort to capture these thoughts.