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Sudan elections set stage for independence of south

Crucial national elections are seen as first step to freedom for Southern Sudan.

Sudanese National Election Commission (NEC) prepare a polling station in Al Fasher, northern Darfur, April 10, 2010. Activists warned on Saturday on the eve of Sudan's historic elections of widespread misdeeds threatening to mar a vote that had been hoped would give Sudan new democratic legitimacy and help end decades of conflict. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

DUK PAYUEL, Southern Sudan — Gabriel Manyok, 27, often marveled at the television images of Americans lining up to vote. He wondered whether he would ever participate in the great exercise of democracy.

He was particularly inspired when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States.

On Sunday, Manyok will get his chance when he votes in Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years. The voting starts April 11 and lasts through April 13. (Read about how a raft of last minute boycotts undermined the vote.)

“I will enjoy it because it will be the first time I will see voting, and all of us will exercise our human rights,’’ Manyok said.

More than two decades of civil war prevented elections in Sudan. In that war, Arab soldiers from the north invaded the predominantly Christian and animist south to convert people to Islam. More than 2 million people were killed and 5 million more were displaced in refugee camps. Refugees began returning home after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005.

Manjok was one of those going home to the south. He was 4 when he and his family fled their village, Duk Payuel, in 1987. After living in refugee camps in southern Sudan, Kenya and Uganda for more than 20 years, Manjok returned to Duk Payuel in 2007 where he does community outreach work for the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. In December, he registered voters. The big push, he said, was urging people to register so they could participate in the referendum which will take place in 2011.

The prospect of voting is a significant milestone for Sudan, but the majority of people in southern Sudan are focused on the January 2011 referendum that will determine whether or not southern Sudan can secede from northern Sudan and form its own independent country.

Most southern Sudanese view the upcoming elections as a first step toward achieving freedom.

Even before the voting starts, however, the elections have been marred by widespread allegations of vote rigging. Several candidates have announced they are boycotting the polls.

In December, I traveled to southern Sudan with a group of former “Lost Boys’’ who are building schools, clinics and wells in their villages.

In dozens of interviews, people told me they were more excited about the referendum coming up in 2011. They knew Salva Kiir Mayardit, chairman of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), is one of the candidates. But most knew very little of the other candidates vying for the 171-member seat Assembly.