Born in a Day: South Sudan’s Referendum

by Faith McDonnell

Originally posted at

Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? –Isaiah 66: 8

The vote for South Sudan’s Referendum on Secession goes on for seven days, but in the minds and hearts of the South Sudanese gathered to vote outside the Referendum Center in Alexandria, Virginia, today is “New Nation Day.” The country that is to be the new, free, independent South Sudan, has been born in a day — January 9, 2011 — six years to the day after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended open warfare between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

The polling place opened at 9:00 AM, but hundreds of South Sudanese were already lined up outside the doors, on both sides of the building, long before then. As one of only five cities in the United States where the huge South Sudanese American diaspora could come to vote, the little office on S. Peyton Street, just blocks from trendy Old Town Alexandria, is a very popular place.  Later today, tourists will roam the streets of Old Town, and even later party-ers will hit the bars and clubs, but they are actually missing the most historically significant thing to take place in this historic city for many, many years.

It is a bitterly cold day. Definitely not more than 30 degrees. Thankfully, none of the threatened snow has fallen, because people have driven from Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, Roanoke, and anywhere else that would find the Washington, DC area closer than the referendum centers in Nashville, Boston, Phoenix, or Omaha. But people are buoyed up by excitement and joy, in spite of the cold. Some are bundled well against the temperature. Others — mostly younger men — have scorned outer wear that would cover up their shirts featuring the flag of New Sudan or the beloved faces of the late Southern leader Dr. John Garang de Mabior or the current president of the regional government of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit. And one enterprising gentleman has created a new t-shirt that is destined to become a collectors item. “The Dream Has Come True” it reads, above a map of South Sudan covered by the New Sudan Flag and the face of Dr. John. Underneath is the inscription, “Republic of Southern Sudan.”

Amongst those waiting to vote are activist and one-time slave, Simon Deng. Deng, who recently completed a barefoot walk through the halls of Congress to deliver a letter urging strong U.S. support for South Sudan and all of the events leading up to the referendum to every representative and senator, had also walked from New York to Washington earlier last fall, to focus attention on all of the marginalized people of Sudan. After he votes, he will be rushing to the airport for a flight to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. “I want to be there with my people,” says Deng.

Deng surveys the crowd, complete with New Sudan and American flags, as they inch closer towards the front doors of the Referendum Center.  The South Sudanese, liningSouth Peyton Street, are like a microcosm of the country that is being born. They are young and old, women and men. They represent ethnic groups from Dinka to Shilluk to Nuer to Moru to Madi, and probably many others, as well. They were born in Juba and Abyei, Gogrial and Bor, Aweil and Yei. In times past, their ethnic groups have fought against each other– almost always spurred on by the same northern government that has attempted for over fifty years to eradicate their cultures, to eradicate them, and to impose Islamic law, Shari‘a, as well as Arabization on them. But today, they are one. They will not vote for “unity” with the north, but they are finding unity with each other as they vote for separation.

With Deng, also waiting to vote, is Angelos Agok. For thirteen years, Agok was a soldier in the SPLA, fighting to defend South Sudan from the genocidal jihad waged by the northern government. Earlier in the week, saying that he intended to wait at the Referendum Center through the night of January 8, Agok encouraged his fellow Southern Sudanese, “one night in frigid winter weather isn’t comparable to 55 years of colonization.” He and Deng agreed if the people in Southern Sudan could walks for weeks in the hot sun to reach a polling place, American Sudanese could endure the discomfort of a cold winter day in order to vote for freedom.

It is also hard not to think of the sacrifice of the SPLA, what hardships the soldiers endured, and how many gave their lives, so that this day a nation could be born. In his 1992 poem, “Yearning for Freedom,” a tribute to his friend and fellow soldier Bol Ading who had just died in battle, Agok writes:

. . . I remember my comrade…his boldness as he struggled to hold on,
his ultimate battle as he succumbed…in a low obscure tone,
his final shining words were as loud as thunder, plain strong and stirring:
I did my part for my people and my nation…
for the vision and mission…for freedom…
and here I am, giving it all…though I know,
you brave men will carry on the mission…

In addition, the words of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, are very present with Agok, Deng, and the other South Sudanese. Less than three months before his tragic death in a helicopter crash after being installed as the Vice President of Sudan and President of the Regional Government of South Sudan, Garang told the people, “I and those who joined me in the bush and fought for more than twenty years, have brought to you CPA in a golden plate. Our mission is accomplished. It is now your turn, especially those who did not have a chance to experience bush life. When time comes to vote at referendum, it is your golden choice to determine your fate. Would you like to vote to be second class citizens in your own country? It is absolutely your choice”. Today, among those making the choice is a United States Marine. This young man, stunning in his full dress uniform, has just returned from serving America, his adopted country, in Afghanistan.

This is just the first day of voting for the Referendum on Secession. Voting closes at 5:00 P.M. on Saturday, January 15. But even if the vote for separation wins, as is generally expected, there are still more steps on the road to independence for South Sudan. There is Abyei, the oil rich area whose destiny is still to be decided, even though in compliance with the CPA, a panel of arbitrators found Abyei to be part of South Sudan. There are other marginalized border areas — the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. There are fears of violence attacks, voter intimidation or fraud, and vote rigging. There are worries that in the days and weeks after the voting ends, when the tallying is being done and the media has departed, more violence could occur. There is the concern that the world may not recognize South Sudan as an independent, sovereign nation, due to pressure from the Arab world, the OIC, and others have been anticipating for years, the total Islamization and Arabization of Africa’s largest country. And although Sudanese President Omar el Bashir seemed docile, and reconciled to the idea of separation when he visited Juba a few weeks ago, the people of South Sudan are well aware that his regime has never kept faith with an agreement that it made with the South. Indeed, every northern regime in Sudan since independence has dishonored the agreement it has made with the South.

But in spite of all that, today there is jubilation. Cries of “SPLA Oyee, New Sudan Oyee, South Sudan Oyee!” rise from the line as it continues to disappear, one person at a time, into the Referendum Center. A group of women, who have just emerged from a chartered bus that has driven in from Roanoke, embrace their friends and ululate happily, one hand in the air. There are struggles ahead, but the people of South Sudan understand struggle, have triumphed over struggle. They will again. A new nation is born.

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