Just 9,000 out of half a million south Sudanese in the north of the country have registered to vote in an independence referendum, officials said Monday, adding to a growing row over the credibility of the poll.
The oil-producing south is 48 days away from the scheduled start of a plebiscite on whether to declare independence or stay in Sudan — a politically sensitive vote promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war. Only southerners have the right to take part but registration centres have been set up in north Sudan and eight other countries to open up the process to refugees and expatriates.
“We understand only about 9,000 people have registered in the north. That is unbelievable,” said the spokesman for the office organising the vote in the south Aleu Garang Aleu. He said the figures were in sharp contrast to the south, where at least 1.3 million had signed up in the first week of registration, leaving the region on target to record 5 million voters there before the end of the process in early December, according to the first official figures.
Northern officials have already threatened to reject the referendum result, accusing south Sudan’s main party of trying to guarantee a vote for independence by discouraging southerners based in the north from taking part. Analysts expect most southerners, embittered by decades of war, to choose independence in the vote due on January 9 and create Africa’s newest country. The north’s dominant National Congress Party thinks southerners living in the north might be more open to unity.
The south’s dominant Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has accused the north of trying to disrupt the vote to keep control of the region’s oil. Party members have said they are worried northern authorities will miscount votes cast in the north to try and increase the numbers for unity. There are fears prolonged disagreements over the vote could reignite conflict.
Many southerners may also be staying away from northern registration stations, fearing intimidation from northern authorities, said International Crisis Group analyst Zach Vertin. “It’s not necessarily surprising that first week turnout numbers are low in northern Sudan, given the … fear of reprisals. Many southerners have chosen either not to register, or have already travelled south to do so,” he told Reuters.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that set up the referendum ended Africa’s longest civil, a conflict fought over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil that killed at least 2 million people. The referendum commission estimates around 5.5 million southerners may be eligible to vote, including 500,000 in the north and another half a million in the diaspora.