Thousands of Southern Sudanese cast their ballots in the first day of voting in the historical referendum, which is expected to split Africa’s biggest nation in two, and give birth to the 193rd United Nations member state.
The first day of the referendum, which will continue until Jan. 15, kicked off at 8 a.m. in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Thousands had lined up through the night, in order to be among the first to vote, the website of the Southern Sudanese Gurtong Trust-Peace and Media Project reported.
President of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit, currently Sudan’s vice president, declared the event “historic” and cast his vote early in the morning, showing the ink on his hand proving he voted.
The president’s vote was witnessed by U.S. envoys Scott Gration and John Kerry, as well as by Hollywood actor George Clooney.
Clooney, who has been campaigning for Sudan for a long time, called the referendum “a great day for all the world.”
The anticipated secession of the south is seen as the sole hope for ceasing the conflicts between the Muslim north and the south, where most people follow Christianity and indigenous beliefs. The conflicts were at the heart of the 22-year civil war that ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the major ruling political parties in the country: the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south.
Sudan is currently ruled by the north's NCP, led by President Omar al-Bashir. Bashir recently said he will support the outcome of the referendum whatever it may be.
Bashir was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in 2008 by the International Criminal Court related to the Darfur genocide that claimed an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 lives.
According to the website of Gurtong, there are indications that the turnout in the south will be “very heavy,” thus making secession almost certain.
The referendum will be valid only if more than 60 percent of registered voters cast their ballot and 50 percent plus one makes a choice for either unity or secession.
Despite the excitement, media reported that the atmosphere at polling stations across the south was largely peaceful and calm.
The chairman of the South Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil said in a press conference that results will be announced in early February, the Sudan Tribune reported.
Khalil said that 3,930,916 Southerners have registered to vote and 3,000 stations were erected in Sudan and around the world with 9,000 polling staff.
Opposite to the south, the polling stations in the north capital Khartoum remained almost empty during the first day of the referendum. This is explained by the fact that many Southerners who had registered to vote in the north, had either returned to their homeland before the referendum, or are traveling to the south to vote during the remaining days for fear of violence, or of being denied medical or other services.
The cheerful mood in the polling stations across south Sudan was overshadowed by the deadly clashes in Abyei, a key oil-producing region in Southern Sudan. Militiamen from the NCP have killed 9 warriors in the village of Makere.
As part of the CPA, Abyei had to hold a parallel referendum with south Sudan, whether it wants unity with the north or south, but the poll was postponed at the last minute after no consensus was reached on the question—who is eligible to vote.