JUBA/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Thousands of south Sudanese started registering for their long-awaited independence referendum on Monday, their first concrete step toward a vote that could split Africa’s largest country in two.
The launch came after northern and southern leaders agreed they would form a “soft border” allowing the free movement of trade and nomads between their territories in the event of separation, as part of a framework agreement to resolve a list of disputes between the two sides.
The referendum on whether the oil-producing region should declare independence, scheduled for January 9, is the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south conflict — Africa’s longest civil war that was fought over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil and that killed 2 million people.
Analysts widely expect southerners embittered by the long war to vote for secession.
Southern President Salva Kiir, surrounded by chanting crowds and drummers in the southern capital of Juba, was among the first to sign up for the vote, a Reuters witness said.
“We will vote on January 9. People must come out en masse. Otherwise people would have been fighting and dying for no cause. The referendum is done only once,” Kiir told the crowd.
Officials with megaphones ranged the streets of Juba calling on people to register. One unofficial vehicle blared out a pro-independence song: “It’s the promised land and the promised land is coming.”
“We need to separate from these people (the northerners). They have not done anything good for us,” Juba resident Deng Manyual told Reuters after registering.
The pro-independence mood came in the face of a campaign led by Sudan’s Khartoum-based President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for southerners to choose to stay united with the north.
Southern leaders have accused the north of trying to delay and disrupt the plebiscite to keep control of the south’s oil reserves, and warned there is a risk of a return to conflict. Bashir has dismissed the accusations and promised to accept the result of the referendum.
Southerners are also able to register in the north and eight countries outside Sudan.
In contrast to Juba, the mood in Khartoum was subdued. The referendum commission acknowledged not enough had been done to publicize registration centers and few southerners speaking to Reuters even knew the delayed registration process had started.
African Union mediators said northern and southern leaders signed a framework agreement Sunday setting out the terms of negotiations to resolve a list of disputes including how to share out oil revenues and national debt after a split.
In the agreement, both sides vowed not to return to war, to give people the right to choose their citizenship after any split and to demarcate their disputed border.
“In the event of secession, this will be the longest inter- state border in Africa ... The parties have committed themselves to maintaining a ‘soft-border’, which will permit unhindered economic and social activity and interaction,” an AU statement said.
It did not go into details on the location of the border that is disputed and said a row over the ownership of the central oil-producing Abyei region still needed to be resolved by Bashir and Kiir.
The United States has been working to smooth the path to the referendum and said the start of registration marked an important milestone, although more work remained to be done.
The White House urged northern and southern leaders to “finish the work started with the voter registration process to ensure the referendum is peaceful and occurs on time, and that the will of the people of South Sudan is respected regardless of the outcome.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S.-assisted talks over the disputed region of Abyei and other issues had recessed briefly but were expected to resume in coming days.
“The parties made considerable progress in the talks last week and reached consensus on principles to resolve a number of issues, including border demarcation, security arrangements, and economic cooperation,” Crowley said.
“We continue to press the parties to make the tough political decisions that are necessary for peace, and look forward to renewed dialogue next week.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; writing and additional reporting by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Chris Wilson