Juba, South Sudan - Cheers and spontaneous dancing broke out as the first official announcement of results from South Sudan’s independence vote was made in the oil-rich region’s capital by members of the commission that organized the referendum held earlier this month.
"The vote for separation was 99.57 percent," said Justice Chan Reec Madut, head of the southern bureau of the Referendum Commission, after reading the vote tallies for “unity” and “secession” for each of the south’s 10 states. Mr. Madut was referring to the results for the south, while Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, the head of the Commission, announced the results from polling in northern Sudan and in eight countries that held voting for South Sudan’s far-flung diaspora population.
Six of the ten southern states registered a 99.9 percent vote for separation, with the lowest vote in favor of secession came in at 95.5 percent in Western Bahr al-Ghazal state, which borders Darfur. The long-awaited referendum produced an overwhelming turnout of 99 percent among voters in the south, one of the poorest and least developed regions on earth.
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In northern Sudan, voter turnout was only 60 percent, and a modest 58 percent of voters – southerners who live in the north – were in favor of the oil-rich south breaking away. Many southerners opted to leave their lives and work in the north to move home ahead of the referendum, and the United Nations says it expects another 100,000 southerners to make the north-south journey within the next month. More than 190,000 southerners have flooded back into the south since early October, though the most recent arrivals were not able to participate in the referendum, since they had not registered to vote in either the north or the south.
In the eight countries, including the United States and Egypt, where southerners cast votes, 99 percent chose independence for their homeland. In the US, 99 percent of the 5,800 voters voted for secession, at polling stations set up in Boston, Seattle, Omaha, and Washington, among other locations.
Before announcing the numbers for the ten southern states, Madut said that his fellow southerners “consider self-determination the centerpiece” of the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south war.
Mr. Khalil, a 90-year old northern Sudanese lawyer, had a noticeably somber tone has he announced the results, particularly in comparison to Madut, a southerner who is the deputy chief justice of the south’s Supreme Court. In his remarks, Khalil focused on the future relations between north and south.
“These results lead to a change of situation, that’s the emergence of two states instead of one state,” this prospect provoking applause from the crowd of southerners. “That change relates only to the constitutional form of relationship between north and south. North and south are drawn together in indissoluble geographic and historic bonds.”
At a press conference held in the southern capital of Juba during the referendum, Khalil told reporters that the likely split of his country did not please him. On Sunday, he struck a more optimistic tone, saying that “if the example of the referendum is any use, we should entertain hope that we will be able to settle the unsettled issues in the six months remaining ahead before the emergence of the nation state of Southern Sudan.”
Speaking after the announcement, southern leader Salva Kiir thanked Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his leadership and for “making peace possible.” He said that the southern government would stand with Bashir as the split of north and south looms ever closer. Mr. Kiir made clear that the south will declare independence on July 9, but not before. “We are not going to put down the flag of Sudan until July 9,” he said.
Kiir noted the importance of reaching an agreement with the Khartoum government on outstanding north-south issues including the future status of the contested border region of Abyei. The southern president was set to travel later Sunday to Addis Ababa for the African Union summit, which President Bashir is also attending.
In the run-up to Sunday’s announcement, Kiir issued several public calls to his people to act carefully in any celebrations they might hold after results were made official, urging restraint and forbidding “celebratory gunfire.”
After Kiir’s remarks, the crowd that had swelled to a few thousand broke into an impromptu dance party at the outdoor area where they had learned that their vote would yield independence in less than six months. The area is also the burial grounds for the late southern war hero, Dr. John Garang.
Swaying to the upbeat music crackling from speakers and the drumming of musicians in traditional garb, smiling southerners celebrated peacefully and joyfully.
In Khartoum, the scene was reportedly different, with police beating and arresting student protestors who are demanding the resignation of their government, apparently channeling the ongoing uprising in neighboring Egypt.
As Sudan moves ever closer to splitting in two, it remains unclear whether Khalil’s vision of north and south remaining connected, with intertwined fates, will be preserved.