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South Sudan’s unlikely hero

January 10, 2011

SUDAN-REFERENDUMSouthern Sudanese may not like to admit it but the unlikely hero of their independence is an octogenarian northern lawyer always close to controversy who has pulled off what was touted as a mission impossible. Holding south Sudan’s referendum on secession on time.

Bespectacled Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, head of the south Sudan Referendum Commission, looks frail and sometimes walks with a stick. But he’s sharper than all of his younger colleagues, can run rings around journalists in Arabic, English and French and handles his own very busy mobile phone traffic.

“When he starts something he attacks it like he’s in his early twenties,” said one colleague.

Khalil, in his late eighties, was sworn in as head of the commission in July some three years later than he should have taken up the post. He then made his first trip to south Sudan.

But the delay left him and the other eight members of the commission with less than six months to organise the most significant vote in the history of Africa’s largest country.

One of his controversial first moves was actually to further stall much of the process by weeks.

He refused a majority vote by the five southern members in the commission that the key secretary-general role should go to a southerner.

Khalil had a perfect candidate in mind — a northern Sudanese who had for years worked with the United Nations on Western Sahara’s independence issue.

“I challenge anyone to find me someone who is better qualified for the job than him,” Khalil told me at the time, even threatening to resign if the principle of southern majority rule continued to dominate the commission.

It’s not the first time he has stuck to an unpopular principle no matter the cost. He made a similar stand in 1986, resigning from the opposition Umma Party and parliament, a contemporary said.

“He’s a very stubborn man,” a friend said. “He will stand for the right decision no matter if it’s against anyone — his party, even himself.”

The southerners eventually gave in and the commission began work in earnest.

Khalil also managed to annoy the north, refusing to go to the foreign ministry to sign a memorandum, insisting they should instead come to him. And he rubbished claims by the ruling northern National Congress Party of fraud during voter registration, prompting claims by them that he was biased towards the south.

His refusal to bend infuriated all. Two staff resigned from the commission saying they could not work under him.

Never afraid to speak his mind, he accused Western donors and the United Nations of treating the commission “like small children” by refusing to give them direct funding.

And he sparked fears of a further delay by insisting that U.N. procurement allow Sudanese companies a chance to bid to print ballot papers, accusing the world body of excluding local expertise from any part of the preparations.

For such a short term in office, Khalil produced endless controversy and provoked much frustration.

I don’t expect him to make south Sudan’s history books as a key figure in their fight for independence. But the determined man is the unlikely hero of the south, leading a team which defied the doom-sayers and got the job done.

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