What Referendum?

YIROL COUNTY, Sudan—Where I live in the capital of Southern Sudan, the south’s looming self-determination vote is a daily topic of conversation among locals, government officials, and diplomats and international donors. In the most crowded traffic circle in town, a large billboard displays a countdown to the vote—calculated in days, hours, and minutes. This billboard is a fitting physical representation of the psychology of the southern capital in the run-up to the referendum; the stakes of this vote are lost on no one here. As a journalist it’s hard for a week to pass without a press conference or political event happening where the referendum is referred to as “the moment of destiny for Southern Sudanese” by Southern Sudanese and international officials alike. And they are right; just as the billboards in Juba say, this is the “final walk to freedom” for Southern Sudan, and the chance to vote in a self-determination referendum is undeniably the result of decades of struggle.

As is obvious from my own emotional rhetoric, the heady referendum fever has indeed struck the southern capital. A trip earlier this week to a very remote region of the south reminded me, however, of the “Juba disconnect” that touches on all aspects of development, politics, and life in Southern Sudan. Juba is not representative of the realities of life here, and this hit home for me last Sunday as I watched a couple thousand head of cattle meander down a rutted dirt road in Yirol County, Lakes state. It occurred to me that the sentiment of the men, women, and children herding these animals might be different than that of the majority of Juba residents. It wasn’t until I visited a cattle camp in neighboring Awerial County a few days later that I was able to learn more about how people in “off the grid” areas of Southern Sudan feel about the upcoming vote.

In Rakaweng cattle camp, near the village of Abuyong in Awerial County, I spoke with an older man who is one of the elders in his community of pastoralist cattle keepers, who migrate every dry season east to the Nile to graze their herd and find drinking water, since all of the ponds and water sources in the Abuyong area dry up. I asked him—with the help of a translator who spoke Dinka—what he knew about the political situation in Southern Sudan. He told me that he had heard that “Dr. John” had died during the struggle, and that a man named Kiir Mayardit had replaced him. John Garang, the leader of the rebel movement that fought against Khartoum for more than two decades, died in a helicopter crash in July 2006, months after a peace deal ended the north-south conflict. Salva Kiir Mayardit did succeed him as president of Southern Sudan, but this news is more than four years old.

Conservations like this one make it difficult for me to imagine how Southern Sudan’s new status as an independent country will immediately change the lives of cattle keepers and farmers across the south. The longer term aftermath of the vote could alter their realities. For the moment, however, many residents of cattle camps do not seem to be viewing the January 9 vote as their “moment of destiny.”