After over 40 years of war waged against them by a regime attempting to destroy their African culture and Christian faith, South Sudanese began voting in a secession referendum Jan. 9-15. Expatriate South Sudanese also voted in the United States, Canada, and, closer to home, in Kenya.
The referendum is the culmination of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed by the northern National Congress Party and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army on Jan. 9, 2005. It was a hard-won victory. In the last phase of the war 2.5 million people died and over 5 million were displaced.
The Khartoum regime used aerial bombardment, scorched-earth strategies, slave raids, virulent Christian persecution, orchestrated famine, and other elements of jihad against South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and other disputed areas. Many of the South Sudanese voting in Kenya are former Lost Boys who grew up in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp after fleeing attacks in their villages and walking to Ethiopia.
Few doubt that the South will vote overwhelmingly to secede and begin a new, independent nation with a secular democracy and religious freedom. But before the last vote is cast and the ballots tallied, there are many concerns stemming from decades of dealing with a government that has never honored one agreement it has made. There are worries about violence, voter fraud and vote rigging, and what Khartoum and its cohorts across the Islamic world will do to undermine the sovereignty of a new South Sudan. There is also deep concern for the safety of South Sudanese still in the North. Despite all those concerns, the South Sudanese are voting for freedom.
American Anglican missionary Fran Boyle, a member of The Falls Church in Virginia, and founder of Connecting Lives International Mission, arrived in Nairobi just in time for the referendum, after visiting South Sudanese refugees in Israel. She was in Nairobi to meet with her South Sudanese associates and provide supplies for the medical clinic and the primary school that she created in South Sudan’s Bahr el Gazal province.
Boyle attended a Jan. 8 prayer service for the referendum at St. Luke’s Church in Nairobi. The service included music, dance, speeches, and a skit depicting the many forms of oppression in which the North of Sudan has held the people of South Sudan, Boyle said. Community leaders and the Sudanese Ambassador to Kenya spoke.
The prayer meeting’s coordinator, the Rev. James Baak, from Southern Sudan’s Wau Diocese in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, invited Boyle to greet the crowd. She brought greetings from American churches that have been praying for South Sudan and from the coalition of activists that has been fighting for them for many years.
Another speaker was the Rev. Peter Yirol, recently elected secretary of the Diocese of Wau. Yirol is one of the pastors who attended school in Kenya with help from Boyle’s ministry. “He was a good investment,” Boyle said.
In addition to his work for the diocese, Yirol is taking care of two orphan boys he brought back to Nairobi from Sudan. Their father was killed in the war. Then they lost their mother, an evangelist. She was attacked and beaten to death by the northern Arab militia when she was preaching in Abyei. Abyei is a disputed town on the border between the north and the south which has traditionally been the home of Southern Sudan’s Dinka people, but where Arab Misseria nomads come with grazing their flocks. Abyei’s fate has not yet been decided, and it is considered one of the flashpoints for violence during the referendum.
There was pandemonium at the Nairobi referendum center when voting opened on Jan. 9, Boyle said. Hundreds of jubilant voters descended on the center at once. The center, with only three voting spaces, was not equipped for such a crowd. The jubilation turned to frustration as the day wore on and people were still lined up outside without much movement. Boyle reported that “there were tense moments with the police and the IOM (International Organization for Migration),” which was overseeing the voting. But eventually everyone got in and voted, emerging from the polling place with ink-stained fingers.
Some South Sudanese in Kenya are worried about the security of the ballots, believing that some of the people working for the IOM may be attempting to slant the vote in favor of unity. They claim that there is a connection between an organization run by the wife of Sudan’s president and indicted war criminal, Omar al Bashir, and IOM’s Egyptian employees.
They wanted either to have the ballots counted every day of the vote or to have one of their own people guard the ballots so that no one tampered with them during the night. But according to the Referendum Act, ballots are not to be counted until after Jan. 15, and each day’s ballots are to be secured in a locked box at each referendum center.
Despite worries about voter fraud, intimidation, or even the threat of Islamists like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab attacking voting stations, the people of South Sudan are determined to be free. An independent South Sudan will honor the memory of the millions of Southerners who died resisting Islamization from the North. As some young South Sudanese in Kenya emblazoned on T-shirts: “May the spirit and blood of the Southern Sudan people who died … guide and vote with us today. Long live the people of Southern Sudan!”
Faith J.H. McDonnell is director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan.
Originally published at The Living Church Foundation.