SUDAN: UN PANEL TOURS POLLING CENTRES IN SOUTH’S INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM
10 January - The independence referendum in South Sudan, which could split Africa's largest country in two and produce the United Nations' 193rd Member State, has got off to a good start with officials successfully handling a large initial turnout, the head of the UN monitoring panel has said.
At the same time, the UN voiced “extreme concern” today about reports of clashes and casualties in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, straddling the borders between North and South, which has been cited as a potential hotspot for renewed conflict between the two.
As the week-long vote entered its second day and the 2005 peace agreement that ended 20 years of war between North and South Sudan reached its culminating moment, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's three-member panel, headed by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, continued their tour of polling centres, visiting three states, talking to voters and meeting with Government and referendum officials.
“The turnout in the first day has been overwhelming but officials have coped very well with that, and we commend them for this,” Mr. Mkapa said in Bor, Jonglei state, where he spoke to local journalists.
“Our hope is that when we finish on the 15th [of January], the results will be aggregated as quickly as possibly so that we can settle the minds of the voters as well as the international community who are looking forward to a conclusive and credible result of this referendum.”
The second-day turnout appeared considerable smaller than the first day's flood of voters, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said. The mission set up in 2005 to support the accord ending a civil war that claimed the lives of some 2 million people and drove an estimated 4.5 million others from their homes, has been assisting in preparations for the referendum.
In a statement last week, Mr. Ban praised the National Government and the Southern Sudanese regional authorities for their efforts to ensure that the vote is held as scheduled in an atmosphere of peace and cooperation, and in his most recent report to the Security Council on UNMIS, he hailed the conciliatory statements by both sides to respect the outcome.
But he also warned of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of renewed conflict, noting that the UN has prepared contingency plans for the period up to June, with a possible reinforcement of UNMIS to prevent any deterioration in security.
“In the unlikely event that the referendum leads to large-scale violence, approximately 2.8 million people could be internally displaced and another 3.2 million affected by breakdowns in trade and social service delivery,” he said. “In this scenario, as much as $63 million might be required to provide emergency assistance to those in need.”
UNMIS has already increased its presence in hot spots, particularly in the oil-rich Abyei region, which was meant to hold a concurrent referendum on whether to join the North or South, but agreement on the modalities for such a vote has not been reached.
According to media reports, at least 36 people died in clashes between Arab nomads and southerners in Abyei over the weekend.
“We are extremely concerned about the reports of clashes around Abyei and the resulting casualties,” UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky told a news briefing in New York, adding that UNMIS is pursuing containment of the situation both politically and on the ground by enhanced patrolling activities and engagement with the top leadership of both sides.
UN humanitarian agencies have also prepared for all eventualities. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has pre-positioned enough food in more than 100 strategic locations to feed 1 million people for six months. This is in preparation for a potential influx of returnees to a newly independent state and the possibility that people will be displaced.
With 1.5 million to 2 million southerners living in the north, Mr. Ban stressed the need to work out post-referendum citizenship, residency and labour issues as well as wealth sharing, resolving the Abyei situation and demarcating borders.
But his report was suffused with the historic dimensions of the referendum. “The coming weeks will determine the future of the Sudan for decades to come. The determination of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to sustain peace, stability and coexistence will be the deciding factor in setting that course,” he said, referring to the 2005 peace accord.
He also stressed that UN troops alone would not be enough to prevent a return to war, should widespread hostilities erupt. “Only a demonstrated commitment by the parties to refrain from inflammatory statements, uphold the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ceasefire mechanisms and engage in dialogue to settle differences will succeed in maintaining peace,” he declared.
“As events in the early days of 2011 will be unique in the history of the Sudan, I urge all partners to intensify their efforts and provide support to all Sudanese in order to ensure the successful holding of the referendum and respect the choice made by the people by endorsing and implementing its outcome.”