November was an important month for southern Sudan, as it saw the start of the voter registration period in advance of January’s referendum. Although delayed by a week, registration finally began on 15th November and ended on the 8th December, a week later than was originally planned.
By the end of the first week of registration, approximately 1.3 million had registered to vote. Reports that several centres were overwhelmed by the numbers of people attempting to register prompted the referendum commission to extend the registration period by a week. The Khartoum-based Government of Sudan (GoS) also called for the registration period to be extended, in order to give southerners living in the north more time to register. By the end of the registration period, the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau reported that almost 3 million people had signed up.
NP’s teams were present in 5 states in south Sudan during the registration period, and observed that registration centres had been successfully set up in both urban and remote, rural areas. It was noted that registration centres were even present in communities with fewer than 100 residents. This observation was supported by a statement released by the Carter Center which stated that in general the registration process was running smoothly and the reach was significant throughout the 10 states. NP staff did observe that the registration process appeared to be firmly supported by all levels of government who consistently affirmed that registration was open to all eligible voters regardless of the each individual’s desired outcome for the referendum.
International and national observers did raise some concerns about the availability of registration materials at some centres, echoing the referendum bureau’s concern that some areas did not have sufficient materials to register all those who were eligible. The referendum commission reported that the extension of the registration period was, in part, to allow sufficient time to ensure sufficient materials were available to register all interested parties. Throughout the registration period, both Juba and Khartoum have issued accusations of manipulation and intimidation of voters. All allegations have been strenuously denied by both parties.
Now that the registration period has come to an end, legal challenges are to its validity are being filed. To date it is reported that six separate law suits have been submitted to the courts, mostly citing the failure to hold the registration three months before the date of the referendum, as established by the CPA, as cause to invalidate the referendum. The Constitutional Court has agreed to hear the first of these cases. Observers have raised concerns that that any judicial attempt to delay or overturn the referendum could prompt violence; an allegation GoSS firmly denies.
While the registration process was widely considered nonviolent, the region experienced some cross-border violence at the end of November when the county of Aweil North in Northern Bahr el Ghazal was hit by airstrikes allegedly ordered by the northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). As explanation, the SAF claimed its troops were pursuing members of the Darfuri Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) group from Southern Darfur into Northern Bahr el Ghazal. It also accused the GoSS of providing shelter to Darfuri rebels. The area suffered from three days of airstrikes, and approximately 2,500 civilians fled the area. A further SAF airstrike was reported in Western Bahr el Ghazal in early December, again justified on the pretext that the SAF was seeking out insurgents from Darfur. Whilst the GoSS has condemned these attacks, no retaliatory action has been taken.
Despite Khartoum’s repeated assurances that all southerners living in the north will be able to continue living in safety and security, large numbers of southerners are choosing to return to their former homes. In the first week of December alone the International Organisation for Migration estimated that 73,000 people returned from the north to the south. These huge figures present some cause for concern, as few preparations have been made to accommodate the returnees and the sudden influx of large numbers of people can be destabilizing. Both GoSS and the international agencies have raised concern that without substantive support, the mass return movement may result in a humanitarian crisis.
State governments are reporting being overwhelmed by the influx, and in response to requests from Goss, the international community has begun to mobilise to provide emergency food and non-food aid to the returnees. Many of these returnees have not set foot in southern Sudan for a generation, and are reliant for help on extended family members. In a region as poor as southern Sudan, the sudden increase in household size often puts great strain upon households already struggling to meet basic needs.
The work of NP’s field team
Registration monitoring work in Greater Mundri
With the start of the registration process, NP’s teams were engaged in monitoring registration centres throughout the Greater Mundri region. Some of these registration centres are extremely remote and hard to get to. As a result there was very few observers were able to provide oversight.
In general the registration period in Mundri passed smoothly. However, the team did intervene in an incident which took place at Wito, Mundri East, amongst the IDP community. These IDPs fled their homes in Bangolo Payam, Mundri West, following attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Although settled in Wito, they retained strong links to the Bangolo community. In the April 2010 elections the IDP community in Wito was allowed to vote in the Mundri West elections, as part of Bangolo Payam, using a postal ballot system.
Whilst this arrangement was permitted during the legislative elections, it was unclear if it would be permitted during the referendum. The authorities in Mundri West were happy for the IDPs to register and later vote as inhabitants of Bangolo Payam, but the government representatives in Mundri East would not allow it, stating that they had to vote as residents of Wito, rather than Bangolo.
This was extremely distressing to the IDP community, who requested government support to return them to Bangolo, so that they could register and vote in what they considered to be their rightful homes.
NP went to the IDP settlement with several local government representatives to address the situation. As tensions ran high and threats of violence had been made, NP’s team provided protective presence to ensure safe space for dialogue about this issue. The government representatives explained that, unlike the parliamentary elections, it made no difference where votes were cast, as they were not being asked to vote for an individual attached to a particular region. Once this was successfully clarified, the IDPs dropped their objection to being registered in Wito Payam. In addition, the commissioners of Mundri East and Mundri West both agreed that the IDPs should register to vote in Mundri East.
Exploratory Work in Lakes State
Last month’s field report highlighted the need to bring together the communities of Mvolo and the southern counties of Lakes State. Over the course of November, this need became even more pressing, as the start of the dry-season migration brought cattle-keepers into conflict with pastoralists in Bahr el Grindi, Mvolo County.
The violence associated with the annual migration breaks out every year, and government authorities and civilians alike have expressed frustrations in being unable to put a stop to the conflict. NP’s teams have done much work in Mvolo County however, the absence of an equivalent NP team on the Lakes State side of the border has hindered the effectiveness of the work, as NP is unable to play the crucial role of trusted intermediary and bring both sides together in dialogue.
NP is currently exploring possibilities for expansion into Lakes State, and with that in mind the team went on an assessment mission accompanied by the Mundri Relief and Development Association, a civil society organisation with whom NP has worked closely in the Greater Mundri area. The team discovered that Lakes State suffers from violence across its borders with its neighbouring states, and also from internal violence, as communities regularly raid each others’ cows, and engage in revenge attacks.
They were warmly received by the Governor, the Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly and the Minister for Social Development, who all expressed a wish that NP’s peacekeeping teams, would soon be established in Lakes State to help them reduce the levels of violence from which their people are currently suffering. Importantly, state and county level authorities as well as members of civil society expressed appreciation for NP taking a proactive approach in building bridges between themselves and the people of Mvolo county, making commitments to engage in NP supported dialogue processes with their relevant counterparts.