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It was an engagement party thrown by a beaming, white-robed Khartoum patriarch with pulsing music provided by Orupaap, a group of mostly southern musicians and dancers.
The band was barely into its third song when the northern, southern and foreign guests swarmed on to the stage raising their arms and clicking their fingers in one of the few African dances easily mastered by awkward middle class Englishmen.
“Where is the band from,” I shouted at the host above the amplified music. “I think the musicians are Shilluk,” he replied, referring to a group with its heartlands around the southern city of Malakal. “They’re from here in Khartoum.”
As delighted southern Sudanese voted in a long-awaited referendum on independence, visitors to the north and south could be forgiven for thinking they were already two separate countries.
Southern 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.
Back in1978, Sudanese statesman Abel Alier decided he had had enough of negotiating with troublesome locals over a controversial development project. Exasperated at the endless obstacles, he vowed to force it through without an agreement.
“If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks we will do so for their own good and the good of those who come after us,” he infamously said.
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.
On July 7, 1990, fear spread around Kenya. It stretched from the capital, where the opposition had called demonstrations to press for a multi-party system and constitutional changes, right into rural areas.
When a lorry carrying packed milk, under a now long-discarded school-feeding scheme, approached a rural schoolyard during a break, schoolchildren ran into their classrooms because the black stacked crates looked suspiciously like the helmets of armed police.
It was a just another seminar on transparency in the oil sector. Seemingly banal.
But this was being held in Khartoum, involving live debates between northern and southern Sudanese officials, a minerals watchdog and the international media, who were allowed free access to publicly grill those who administer what has for years been an incredibly opaque oil industry.
What’s in a name? An entire cultural and national identity if you are from Sudan’s oil-producing south.
The region of southern Sudan is now less than seven months away from a referendum on whether it should split away to form Africa’s newest country.
Sudan has witnessed the end of what was supposed to be a historic event.
The first multi-party polls in almost quarter of a century to elect leaders on all levels, including the presidency held by Omar Hassan al-Bashir for 21 years.
But far from joy in the streets or pride in a job well done, there was just a sigh of relief.
The talk of the town for Sudanese is the position of Washington’s envoy Scott Gration after he met the National Elections Commission, the body accused of irregularities and bias towards the ruling National Congress Party.
“They have given me a lot of information that gives me confidence that the elections will start on time and that they will be as free and fair as possible,” Gration told reporters.
“This has been a difficult challenge but I believe they (the NEC) have stepped up and met the challenge,” he added.