Upcoming Vote Could Bring A Divided Sudan

In Sudan, tens of thousands of people are streaming south, ahead of a scheduled referendum that could see Africa's largest country split into two states. Next month's vote will ask southerners if they want to secede from the north. The migration is straining already meager resources of the semi-autonomous government of South Sudan. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR foreign correspondent Frank Langfitt about the latest developments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to Sudan, which Americans probably think of mainly as a nation in strife primarily because of genocide in the Darfur region. Many Americans have been watching that story closely. Negotiators have been working for years to try to end that conflict. But there is another important ongoing issue with religious overtones that could determine the direction of that country for decades to come. And a referendum next month will decide if the semi-autonomous region of Southern Sudan will become an independent nation.

Southern Sudan is mainly Christian; Northern Sudan mainly Muslims. And the two sides were consumed by deadly civil war decades ago. Now tens of thousands of South Sudanese who have been living in the North have been returning to the South in anticipation of the vote. Aid workers say that they are worried for the security of returnees amid fears of renewed violence and conflict. This is Africa's largest country.

For more on the situation, we're joined by NPR's foreign correspondent Frank Langfitt. He's just back from a reporting trip to Sudan that took him both north and south. And he joins us from his base in Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks so much for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: Now, why are so many people leaving? Are Southerners leaving the North out of fear of violence? Or are they just heading South to go and vote?

LANGFITT: Well, there's a lot of things going on. One thing is people do want to vote. But there's also this really interesting sense of patriotism and pride. They think that with South Sudan that they do expect the referendum will go for separation and they see sort of a new beginning.

They're also looking kind of for a place where they'll feel more comfortable. A lot of people that I met in Northern Sudan, Southerners, they feel like they've been treated really poorly there. They feel like second class citizens. They often complain of being harassed. And they kind of really want their own country.

MARTIN: What's the climate around the vote? Is there a climate of fear? Hope? What?

LANGFITT: In the North there is a sense of hope, but also a sense, like, they really want to get out of there because they've been - they felt like they had been treated so badly. I'll give you an example. I went to this neighborhood called Jaberona(ph). It's all these mud houses, and I walked into a poker game of a bunch of Southerners who were living there. I introduced myself, said I wanted to talk to them about the vote, and this is the reaction I got.

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: I set off this big argument and some people said, listen, if we talk to this guy, he's a journalist, we'll go to jail. Secret police will get us. Other people said, let's tell him the truth. I mean, let's tell him what we've been going through. People told me stories about jailed in the North for wearing blue jeans because it was seen as un-Islamic. Some of their houses would get smashed up when they were making Southern Sudanese moonshine, which is the only way some of these folks can make money, but it's against Northern Sudan's, you know, Islamic Shariah law.

MARTIN: So, this conversation you just had was in Khartoum, which is in the North.

LANGFITT: Yes.

MARTIN: What about in the South?

LANGFITT: Well, in the South, everybody is very, very excited. The question, though, one of the big questions is: Can they handle all these returnees? And in a place like Juba, they only got paved roads in the last few years. And as you fly across South Sudan, as I did, if you look around, it's mostly just scrub and tucles(ph). These are mud huts with conical shaped roofs, thatched roofs. And so far, the people who've been coming home, they've mostly been -some of them have been sleeping in schools or on the ground because there just isn't the infrastructure and the government isn't organized enough to kind of take care of them.

I met with some people who had actually returned from the North in recent years. And right now they're living in mud huts on the edge of Juba. And one guy who is a secretary in one of these communities, his name is Isaac Amine Cornelio(ph), he told me they can't handle any more people. This is how he put it.

Mr. ISAAC AMINE CORNELIO: We have nothing to give them. (unintelligible) this place, you can stay here, but we have nothing (unintelligible) this community to supply to them.

MARTIN: Now, the South does have oil, Frank, doesn't it?

LANGFITT: It does, absolutely.

MARTIN: Why is there no economic benefit from that?

LANGFITT: Well, there's some. I mean if you got to Juba, it is a bit of a boomtown. I mean if you talk to people, you know, right now, if you or I go there for the first time, it looks, you know, very backwards. A lot of the roads aren't paved. But if you talk to people who were there just, you know, a few years ago, there was nothing. So things are growing.

But there also are complaints in Juba. People feel this is a young government. It's not that well run. They're inexperienced and there is a lot of corruption. One thing people will say is, you know, gosh, we have all this oil, but where's it all being spent?

A little anecdote: I was driving around town with my cab driver, who drove me around Juba, and he said as recently as a few months ago, soldiers from the army who weren't getting paid would just shake people down at night. Apparently that's improved. But, still, you know, there's a sense that this government has a long way to go.

MARTIN: So, Frank, I think the general expectation in the world community is that the vote will go in favor of separation. Is that how it's seen there?

LANGFITT: It certainly did. When I was in Juba and I spent two or three days, as people were registering to vote, I couldn't find a single person who said they were going to vote to stay together with the North. And one reason for that is they've fought a civil war for 20 years. Many of them feel like they didn't get many benefits from the North. They're very resentful and they want this new beginning.

What we don't know is how some of the border areas will vote. There are people who live in the South who have ties to the North. And this is one of the concerns is when there is referendum, will there be violence? Will there be, you know, a significant chunk of people who don't want to leave?

MARTIN: It's my understanding that part of the reason the Khartoum government in the North is hesitant is that the actual border itself is still in dispute. So, what happens after the referendum?

LANGFITT: Well, one thing that the North and the South has said to some extent is we have so many outstanding issues, as you mentioned. But one of the things they may be able to agree on is to put this off, is to get the referendum done and then work on the details. Now, of course the details are going to be extremely important.

South Sudan is going to get the vast majority of the oil in the country. Northern Sudan is going to want things in exchange for that. They may want the South to pick up some of the, you know, international debt the country has; may want some more revenue sharing, at least for a while, as the North tries to develop its economy in another direction.

So, the hope is that the referendum can go forward and then in the six months between the referendum and what many people expect will be an actual declaration of independence, they can work out those differences.

MARTIN: Frank Langfitt is a foreign correspondent for NPR. He joined us from his home base in Nairobi, Kenya. He recently returned from a visit to Sudan. Frank, thank you so much for joining us.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome.

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