Thousands of southerners turned out across Juba this morning to begin voting in a long awaited independence referendum. I am, to some degree, a bit surprised by how calm things have been in recent days. In the months leading up to the vote, pro-separation activists were tremendously active in the capital. I expected the streets to be packed up independence supporters in the days before the referendum. Oddly, this was not the case.
Voting got underway this morning with few reports of disorder or irregularity. The registration issues that plagued last April’s parliamentary, presidential and gubernatorial elections seem to have been adequately addressed.
I am dismayed a recent reports of clashes in Abyei, Unity State and Jonglei. I hope that spoiler groups can be convinced of the importance of a peaceful vote.
I am quite exhausted, having been up early and gone to bed late for many recent nights. There is excitement in the air, however, and that is giving me strength.
Here are some snaps from the last 24 hours in Juba.
Hundreds of activists rallied in Juba today in an expression of support for southern independence. The rally was held exactly five months ahead of a referendum during which southerners will decide whether to secede from the north and form a new, independent country.
Despite torrential rains, spirits ran high among activists. “Even the rain has come to support southern independence,” a female activist told me. “We’ve got God on our side.”
The rally comes amid mounting concerns that administrative and logistical challenges could force the vote to be delayed, a prospect abhorred by southerners. The commission tasked with overseeing the referendum was slated for formation in 2008 but was only put in place one month ago. Among other responsibilities, the commission is tasked with the formal demarcation of the north-south border, a difficult and as-yet unresolved sticking point between the two sides. Owing to heavy rains and impassable roads, on-the-ground demarcation activities were temporarily suspended until conditions improve.
Northern Sudanese officials have been recently clamoring about the border issue. Members of the ruling, northern National Congress Party have warned that a failure to agree on the border could lead to renewed conflict. Some cite border conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea and India and Pakistan as examples of what could occur between north and south Sudan.
When pressed on the issue, organizers of today’s rally insisted that the referendum would be held on time and that border demarcation is not an essential prerequisite for moving forward with the vote.
The predawn call to prayer rings out from a mosque near my hotel and I realize that I’m up far too early. The long and haunting notes drift through Nairobi like a gentle snow that vanishes before it hits the ground. I reach for my watch on a nightstand, inadvertently knocking over a stack of books and an uncapped bottle of water. I hear the slow, chugging sounds of liquid spilling onto the floor and do nothing to stop it. 5:05. I stare into the shadows of a sleeping city and take stock in the silence that will not last long.
I feel nervous as I pack my cameras. After four weeks of leave, I feel rusty and certain that I’ll forget some critical piece of equipment. I attempt mental checklists, which, after 24 hours in transit and five hours of sleep, prove useless. It takes me twenty minutes to feel confident enough to leave my room.
Over breakfast, three TV sets blare separate, nonstop newscasts regarding today’s constitutional referendum. Throughout the country, millions of Kenyans are set to vote on whether to reform the existing constitution, which has been left in place since the British colonial period. The vote marks the first time in history that Kenyans will have a say in the fundamental legal principals of their country. The call for reform is expected to pass by a significant majority. Some are concerned, however, that ongoing intertribal tensions and holdover animosity from Kenya’s devastating post-election violence in 2007 could turn today’s vote ugly.
The United States government updated its travel warning for Kenya, urging Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the country during the referendum period. United Nations staff is under restricted movement as are the staffs of many international NGOs. It’s a cautious game of wait and see. It is clear by the television broadcasts that Kenyans are just as concerned as internationals. Kenya Television airs nearly three uninterrupted minutes of smiling, laughing politicians set to “It’s a Wonderful World,” by Loius Armstrong. The piece, and its intended message, speaks volumes to me.
Thus far, there have been no major reports of fraud, irregularities or violence. I spent the day shooting at polling stations in areas throughout Nairobi and was impressed with the level of organization and professionalism at the centers. Lines moved quickly and I witnessed very few administrative hangups. As we move closer to the announcement of full results, I hope that cool heads will prevail.