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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. There's a reckoning going on in Sudan. Africa's largest country has embarked on a census, the fifth ever in its history. And unlike previous attempts, this census could actually be accurate, emphasis on could. As NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, the numbers that are ultimately released could only be as accurate as the country's leading politicians want them to be.

GWEN THOMPKINS: A census is a lot like a Polaroid picture. Everybody crowds into the frame, says the equivalent of cheese and then waits for the results to appear. Sometimes, you have to shake it a bit and when all the colors sharpen into focus, a whole nation can take a nice long look at itself. Doesn't that sound easy? Welcome to Sudan, where simple addition is neither nice nor easy. Isaiah Chol heads the Commission for Census and Statistics and Evaluation in the semiautonomous south. Ask him, how many people live in Southern Sudan.

Mr. ISAIAH CHOL (Head, Commission for Census and Statistics): Well, I am not authorized to release that information. I'm not the right person to do it.

THOMPKINS: Just about everybody here is stingy with the facts. But this is what's happened so far. Last April, two separate commissions representing North Sudan and the semiautonomous South dispatched thousands of enumerators abroad in the land. The enumerators knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors, huts and the occasional tree and interviewed millions of people. The results were due at the end of last year. Then they were due in February and now the government in Khartoum is saying, be patient, the colors are still coming in to focus. Again Isaiah Chol.

Mr. CHOL: We are hopeful that the result would have been released in December and then the North could not finish on time. Even if we finish, the problem was from the North, not from us. So they be late.

THOMPKINS: The stakes are unusually high. In a nation where the Arab Muslim North fought a 20-year war against the largely black Christian South, both the black Christians and the Arab Muslims claim to be in the majority. The census can determine who actually is. It can also say how the population is distributed, which is a determining factor in where schools and hospitals get built. Moreover, the numbers can show where Sudan's natural voting constituencies lie. And that's important because in 2011, southern voters will decide a referendum on whether Sudan remains one country, or splits into two. But Isaiah Chol says the census-takers have little control over the tally.

Mr. CHOL: It is the president of Sudan that will have a final say. It is a political decision, of course. The census is political. You know, everything is politicized in the Sudan. All these things are a political decision.

THOMPKINS: Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, and the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, are fully expected to fiddle with the results. Bashir and Kiir are former wartime adversaries who now share a fragile alliance in a unity government. In census matters, the two leaders may conceal as much information as they share. Both are said to be preparing for the possibility of another war. And it doesn't take Sun Tzu to know that you don't divulge the intimate details of your territory to the enemy. You want to hear a grown man squirm? Ask the Head of the Census Processing Center of southern Sudan to see the center's computer server.

Can you show me the server?

Unidentified Man #1: No, not one of you allowed.

THOMPKINS: What, to look at the server?

Unidentified Man #1: But (unintelligible) it's not allowed.

THOMPKINS: By whom?

Unidentified Man #1: The server is (unintelligible) forget about this room.

THOMPKINS: The Census Processing Center for southern Sudan is in a town called Rumbek, where the husks of buildings that were bombed during the North-South civil war still stand. Folks here say that land mines are still in those buildings. But then there are apparently career ending land mines at the Census Processing Center for anyone who says too much. Here's the chief again on how many census forms went out in the south.

THOMPKINS: Okay, so how many forms went out?

Mr. CHOL: I cannot tell.

THOMPKINS: You can't tell how many forms went out?

Mr. CHOL: No, no. I can't.

THOMPKINS: All the political cloak and dagger will probably obscure the fact that the south appears to have done a fairly thorough job of counting and accounting for their figures. They now have a paper and computer trail showing where every census document is and how it was handled. Rebecca Hoffman is the chief technical adviser under the U.S. AID Southern Sudan's Census Support Program. She says the census has probably penetrated 89 percent of the population — and 89 percent is apparently remarkable given that southern Sudan is nine times the size of Pennsylvania and has less than 100 miles of paved road.

Ms. REBECCA HOFFMAN (Chief Technical Adviser, U.S. AID Southern Sudan Census Support Program): It's amazing. When you consider the lack of infrastructure, the logistical problems, the seasonality which renders some parts of this country absolutely inaccessible — it is an amazing achievement.

THOMPKINS: The North has reportedly done most of its counting by hand and provided scant training to those handling the forms. That makes accounting for their anomalies more difficult, which is the stage of the process in Khartoum now.

Ms. HOFFMAN: They're analyzing the complete data set to make sure that everything seems reasonable. They're verifying that anything that looks surprising, they have some plausible explanations for, because you don't just produce a number and say, well, I don't know.

THOMPKINS: But Isaiah Chol and others say that worrying signs are coming from the North.

Mr. CHOL: Particularly, the southern Sudanese in the North. We think that they've been undercounted. And we still believe that there are some areas in the North that have been over counted. For instance, Darfur.

THOMPKINS: Now each side is suspicious that the other is trying to plump up their numbers but on the issue of Darfur, the South may have a point. Hundreds of thousands of people who live in displacement camps in Darfur refused to participate in the census. So the North should not count them. But many here say that the North's figure show Darfur as its most populous state. So who are all those additional people supposedly in Darfur? Again Isaiah Chol.

Mr. CHOL: You think that's the population of Darfur, given the fighting and the displacement and still it has the highest population in the north. We think that this is an area of concern and we wanted to find out why it is so.

THOMPKINS: But when the South requested to see the raw data from the North, the North refused to hand it over. These issues will have to be negotiated somehow because there will be no negotiations once the figures are out. The Sudanese are making no adjustments after the fact. There will be just one figure for each of the 25 states and for each of the two halves of Sudan and for the nation as a whole. It will be like seeing Roman numerals on a stone tablet and they don't make an eraser big enough for mistakes.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Juba, southern Sudan.

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