African business, politics and lifestyle
Sudan rearranges furniture as independence vote looms
The shiny new headquarters of Sudan’s referendum commission was buzzing with activity on Monday, less than four months ahead of the scheduled start of a seismic vote on whether the country’s oil-producing south should declare independence.
Unfortunately, officials were not all busy putting the final touches to voting registration lists or preparing publicity materials for the region’s inexperienced electorate.
First they had to set up the office — staff, who only moved in around a week ago, bustled around rearranging furniture as they waited for deliveries of everything from computers to curtains.
Today, with just with 115 days, or 81 weekdays, to go until the plebiscite, Sudan remains startlingly unprepared for the vote, promised under a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between north and south Sudan.
The stakes are high. Analysts fear any delay, or messy outcome to the vote, could spark a return to civil war, with dire consequences for the surrounding region.
Southerners are widely expected to choose independence, and would react angrily to any perceived interference from Khartoum (bent, they say, on keeping control of the region’s oil), or any irregularities that might question the validity of the vote’s outcome.
The members of the commission, who are supposed to organise the referendum, were only appointed in late June, after months of wrangling between northern and southern leaders. The commission’s secretary general Mohamed Osman al-Nujoomi was nominated on Sept. 2, and approved by the president on Wednesday.
At the time of writing, the commission had still not announced a start date for voter registration, or a concrete plan of how it was going to reach and identify millions of voters, spread out across the underdeveloped south and around the world.
No one you ask is prepared to say it is already too late, that Sudan has no hope on meeting the deadline.
And no Sudan analysts you speak to are surprised at the delay and last minute rush. Commentators have long written about the Sudanese government’s often disastrous policy of “strategic delay” – where costly decisions are put off in the hope that other events will intervene.
The only difference this time is that Khartoum’s ever-flexible delaying tactics are coming up against the immovable force of a fixed deadline — southerners insist they will not budge a day beyond the scheduled voting date of January 9, 2011.
Optimists hoping that that vote will still take place on time can take heart from the fact that the commission at last has an office — if you can find it, that is.
There is still no sign outside the premises on an unmade road in Khartoum’s Al Taif district and the most useful landmark for giving driving directions is a hoarding at the turning for the Ona Beauty Centre.
Later in the week, the commission announced it had decided on the design of the registration forms, but not where they would be printed.
As I sat inside the new offices waiting for a briefing, a passing official broke open a packet of multi-coloured drinks coasters and handed them out, one for each new desk.