JUBA, southern Sudan — Standing in the shade of the solitary tree at this ad-hoc voter registration center — a flimsy plastic table and two chairs — Margaret Simon points to the thick bundle of timber lying on the other side of the dusty road.
Life, she says, is difficult for southern Sudanese — especially for the region’s women. She and many others regularly make the long and dangerous journey from the other side of the mountain to the city’s urban markets with firewood, eking out a daily survival in one of the world’s last great undeveloped frontiers.
Today she made the trek here, burden and all, to register to vote in a few months time. “I pray to God that the leaders will see the suffering of the women,” she says softly.
Sudan is the largest nation in either Africa or the Arab world, covering 967,000 square miles, making it about one quarter the size of the United States. It has a population of about 40 million.
Real elections here have been a rare occurrence. The national elections scheduled for April are the product of an even rarer breakthrough in the country’s stream of civil wars. A war between the country's mostly Arab Muslim North and the predominantly non-Muslim African South first broke out in 1955. The civil war erupted again in more furious form in 1983 when an estimated 2 million people died — mostly civilians, and mostly southerners.
An end to the violence was achieved in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which provided for a six-year interim period to be jointly ruled by President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) and the former guerrilla group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The deal granted the SPLM semi-autonomous rule over the south during the period. Two elections would then be held, the first to determine representation for all in the national governments and the second in which the people of south Sudan could vote whether or not to be independent.
The interim period of joint rule was designed — mostly by international mediators — to give the nation a “legitimate” government leading to the all-critical vote on whether or not the south would choose to secede from the north. The elections during the interim period were also created to give the Sudanese people a chance to see what a united, democratic Sudan could be like before the oil-rich south could vote to divide the country.
Despite the mobilization of southerners like Margaret Simon to register, few outsiders now express enthusiasm for the April poll. Many are aware of problems in the peace agreement plan.
Sudanese analyst John Ashworth wrote in September that, “In hindsight, it was a mistake to have elections in the interim period.”
His opinion has shifted little since. “I think the elections are already destabilizing the entire process in a way,” he said. “They are using up time and resources when we should be preparing for the the referendum.”
It is easy to find the animosity that many fear is explosive. Decades of historical grievances held by the south against the north, only hardened by the crude wartime tactics against civilians practiced by successive northern regimes, have left few bridges remaining between the now-governing partners.
In addition, the Khartoum government of al-Bashir is blamed for perpetrating ethnic violence against the people of Darfur in west Sudan. The people of south Sudan have little confidence in the fairness of al-Bashir's government, 740 miles to the north in Khartoum. The south’s governing seat, Juba, is closer in proximity to the capitals of five neighboring countries.
Mac Maika, a member of the south Sudan electoral high committee, describes the “underlying hostility between north and south” which frustrates his team’s relations with its northern-based superiors.
“There is a common way the north has of dealing with the south. They give you the responsibility but then undermine your authority so that you fail,” he said, complaining of severe underfunding and neglect.
The south’s position became even more tenuous when “rigged” national census results allocated it only 21 percent of seats in the next parliament, a sharp drop from the 34 percent granted the region during the interim period. The official count indicates the southern population sits at 8 million, though more accepted estimates range between 10 million and 12 million.
“We will not accept any election based on the census results,” said senior SPLM official Anne Itto. “We would only accept elections for the executive — the president of the republic, the president of southern Sudan, and the governors — these elections do not require really the census results.”
Most feared is a parliament so dominated by the north that it will be able to pass an amendment that nullifies the peace agreement's provision for a southern referendum.
If the south is denied its referendum, there is little reason to doubt it will immediately follow up on its threat to unilaterally declare independence. War, presumably, will follow.
If there is any chance of the north letting the south go, observers say it likely lies in a post-referendum power-sharing agreement that would continue to grant the north a portion of southern oil revenue.
“The post-referendum arrangements need to be resolved prior to the end of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement period,” warned David Gressly, the senior official in the south for the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission. “Time is starting to run out on this.”