Southern Sudan’s Self-Determination Referendum – Two narratives
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.
Speaking to a long time friend, who is a southern, I was taken aback by his understanding of the referendum. In his mind, a yes vote did not mean the splitting of the country in two, but rather the chance for the southerners to claim back their rights. That thought process worried me at the time and I still wonder how many thought the same. It is clear that this friend was mis-sold what the referendum was all about
This is really interesting, Jort, and I wish I could have been there for the referendum – it’s quite hard gauging how I feel from such a distance.
I appreciate your argument here, but I do disagree with you on several counts (or misunderstand you, as the case may be). I’ve written a response to your piece on my blog, but I’ll give a quick summary here.
Do you feel that the “alternative narrative” structure here makes too much of a distinction between an implicitly ‘superficial’ feeling of success and competency, and your concerns over wider political pressure and government involvement?
I feel that the competitiveness of polling stations and wards to get their turnout the highest was probably more likely to be responsible for any hunting for non-voters than a desperate attempt at rigging a definite vote for secession – particularly as, by mid-week, we knew the 60% turnout had been reached, and forecasts for the last six months or more have been for an overwhelming vote for secession. GoSS’s worries about the 60% turnout have always felt to me to be more to do with the legitimacy of the vote than the actual result.
My experience in the polling centers was different from Narrative # 2. I did see chairmen helping some people vote, but in nearly all cases they were elderly and/or disabled and were seeking assistance. Of course I can’t claim to have visited more than 10 centers, nor can I claim that those I did visit were representative of the whole. Overall though my sense of the referendum and the period around it aligns much more closely to your Narrative # 1 than to Narrative # 2. I am however, very worried about the issue of political space in the south (the north goes without saying at this point). I just don’t think the referendum is the right or most compelling example of the problem. I think the elections last year made this case out already. Think of the SPLM-DC candidates who were elected in Upper Nile and then arrested.
The test will come in the coming months as we watch who gets to be involved in the drafting of the constitution, what provisions it includes on these kinds of issues, and whether the promised post-independence elections do in fact eventuate. . .
Glad to see this blog gaining some momentum again and appreciate the comment-provoking posting!
Jort: I can certainly see some truth in both narratives you present.
Heather Sharkey has similar views, presented here:
Dear Loâ€™ay, thanks for sharing this. I have similar concerns about how well some people in South Sudan understood what the referendum process was about, and what the implications of their decision would be.
Dear Nicki, based on what you write here, Iâ€™m not sure we disagree. I can only guess why, at least in some areas, Southern Sudanese authorities felt the need to exercise excessive control over the referendum process, but Iâ€™m quite sure that it had little to do with reaching the 60% turn-out and the 50+1% vote for secession – I have little doubt that these two thresholds would also have been met without this level of involvement. Perhaps you could send me the link to your blog? I would be interested to learn your views.
Dear Rebecca, youâ€™re right when you say that the elections provided a compelling example of the problem of limited political space in South Sudan. Nevertheless, I feel that many assessments of the referendum have been too forgiving of practices that warrant similar concerns to those voiced following the events in April. I agree that the coming months will be very important and probably give us a better idea of just how alarming these warning signs are.
Dear Russ, thank you for sending me this link: I enjoyed reading Ms Sharkeyâ€™s interesting essay and recognize many of the concerns she raises.
why always people think that black iliterate ones can’t speak their mind , let’s me tell everyone in South Sudan people were been grinded by war for 50 years or more and when the time for vote to decide their fade tell me what will be the answer common sense will preveil the fact that they will repeat the same mistake in Juba conference again at all….
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