Sudan votes: a civil way to end a civil war

An elderly woman gets her thumb stamped as she receives her ballot on Sunday, January 9. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/Catholic Relief Services

Dan Griffin, CRS senior adviser for Sudan is in Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan, during the referendum process.

Between jet lag and excitement I’m wide awake by 4:00am. The CRS guesthouse is not far from St. Theresa’s Cathedral. I can hear the choir coming to the end of an all night vigil.

Even closer is the polling centre for this area, the Kator section of Juba. At 5:00 a.m. I can hear police and soldiers giving instructions to assembled voters. By dawn the line extends for a hundred yards before wrapping around the block. By 8:00 a.m. the polling centres are reporting voluminous crowds. President Salva Kiir cast his ballot on the morning news.

In stark contrast to celebrations in Juba, reports are coming in of violence over the weekend in Abyei and Unity state. More than 40 casualties are confirmed. Initial reports speak of contained violence. Voting will proceed in Unity State as planned. The referendum on the status of Abyei, originally scheduled for today is postponed indefinitely.

Journalists swarm polling stations, photographing, interviewing, and sending live broadcasts via satellite. Centres open on time. The voters stand in orderly lines, and people are showing up at the right polling centres with the right documentation. Some have lined up most of the night, while others will be in line all day. The mood is both celebratory and serious the importance of this vote is clearly taken to heart.

The process is impressively orderly. Voters present their registration cards that are checked numerically against a registration roll, and put their thumb print in the registry. Their cards are clipped or punched and the voters are given a simple pre-folded ballot – two boxes with the choices in English, Arabic, and symbols – a clasped handshake for unity, or a single hand palm out fingers up for secession, a symbol southerners jokingly referred to as “waving goodbye”.

The voter puts a thumbprint in the appropriate box, refolds the ballot so as to not smear the ink, and then dips their forefinger in indelible ink. No hanging chads, no butterfly ballots. Elderly, handicapped, or pregnant voters are escorted to the front of the line. It is a very civil way to end a civil war.

At 11:30am a huge crowd gathers at St. Teresa Cathedral. Archbishop Paulino Lukudo Loro speaks, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier OFM, Archbishop of Durban, South Africa presides and speaks, President Kiir speaks, and by 2:30pm we are back in the streets for more voting.

At 4:00pm a delegation from AMECEA and the All Africa Council of Churches, including Archbisop Oneiykan from Abuja, Nigeria, escorts Archbisop Paulino to his polling center. In a nice ecumenical touch, Arcbishop Paolino, the Catholic bishop of Juba, joins Archbishop Daniel Deng, the Episcopal bishop of Sudan to vote together, just as they registered together.

At 5:00pm the voting closes for new arrivals, but some of those already in line will continue to wait till 8:00pm for the opportunity to vote. By dark most of the voting has closed without a single report of disruption or violence at the polling centres across the south. Unlike a public holiday or a sports victory, the streets are surprisingly quiet – few crowds, little traffic, no loud celebrations.

It has been an emotional day, filled with the stories of what this vote means to the people of southern Sudan – powerful stories of all they have endured and all that they hope for. But the night is quiet, as if the whole city is exhausted and relieved. It has been a privilege to be with the Sudanese for this long-awaited day, to share in their joy and excitement, to witness their profound sense of purpose. Amen.


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