Sudanese Referendum, an exercise of denied democracy or a bullet to end half a century of civil unrest?


South Sudan is a region roughly the size of France which is on the verge of a historical moment of democracy. An opportunity to exercise democracy has been coming for the past six years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed on 9 January 2005 ending intermittent civil wars that lasted nearly half a century since 1955.

About 3.9 million South Sudanese have been registered to vote for the Africa’s largest country to remain united or be separated with the birth of the world’s 193rd U.N. state and the Africa’s 54th state. There are about 9,000 South Sudanese Australians who cast their votes during the referendum. The majority of the registered voters are expected to vote for South Sudan to be an independent state.

For many South Sudanese, it is a historic moment of democracy to be able to cast a ballot for the first time and exercise a democratic right which we felt was denied us, a right we have never had. The interesting question to ask is, “what will be the outcome of the referendum”?

As we look to answer that question, perhaps looking back at the experiences of many South Sudanese in the second civil war from 1983-2005 may bring us closer to answering it. I will use my personal experience as a reflection of many who have shared this journey and a life in diaspora. The first bullet marking the beginning of the Sudanese second civil war was fired on 16 May 1983. There were two army captains (both now deceased) who mutinied at the time namely late Kerubino Kuanyin and late Nyuon Bany. They were South Sudanese men. I was one year and one month old at the time.

It was not long before I experienced the horrors of war myself. My town of Yirol in Southern Sudan was attacked one night in 1986. I have lived my 28 years with the horrors of that night.

The Sudanese army infantry with its modern weaponry firing satellite missiles was a remarkable experience for a four year old. I later grew up to call those bombs “moon light bombs” because of the moon light effects those bombs had that night. The moon light bombs would light up the environment and subsequently other bombs would follow and hit with a deafening sound. I learnt how to duck for a cover from shrapnel when I was only four. I was soon to learn that it was going to be my first civilian military training exercise that I would build on for many years to come.

I was being carried by my father’s body guard and we went into woods in order to avoid the main road where the bombs were landing. As the town was attacked, my family and I ran helter-skelter in various directions to escape from attack.

We, the younger generation that grew up experiencing the civil war, often argued about who experienced the toughest challenges during that time. I must admit that my experiences are much less torturous than those of my colleagues, friends and other fellow South Sudanese. I befriended a child soldier, for instance, who was also a lost boy in Kakuma during our early days of settlement in the desert outback of the Kenyan refugee camp where we ended up… The term “lost boy or boys of Sudan” is often used to refer to young Sudanese boys who were either orphaned or were un-accompanied minors during the civil war. The boys experienced unimaginable human suffering. I was a friend of a trained child soldier who was so infested with lice that we would joke that the lice would drag him away one night and he would never be found.

The Sudanese Civil wars — from 1955-1972 that ended with the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement and the 1983-2005 war that ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — have brought terrible suffering on the Sudanese people.

It is widely believed that over two million people lost their lives and four million live in the Sudanese diaspora with many still in refugee camps. Many South Sudanese have suffered numerous fates and atrocities. War on civilians was widely used by the Sudanese government. Breastfeeding mothers have had their breasts cut off to kill them as well as starve the innocent young babies. The army gunships and Antonov aircrafts have maimed the living hell out of the civilians. I remember in 1992 in Kapoeta, a town which is located in the Kenya-Sudan border, when an army aircraft bombarded us. I saw a headless man whose head was chopped off by shrapnel and was running before dropping dead. Scenes like those were common place in the war zones we once called “home”. There were some funny scenes amongst the horror. There was a common belief at the time that if you were wearing red or white clothes, the gunship would spot you as you were too visible. So, one man came into the open tunnel we were hiding to avoid shrapnel. He was wearing red shorts and a white shirt and was ordered to remove them or risk being thrown out. He did so and then we discovered he was wearing red underwear and was forced to remove it too — the poor man while seeking refuge from gun fire ended up humiliated.

Perhaps, lost dignity has been the key lesson we have learnt as South Sudanese during the civil wars. We have experienced degrading and inhumane treatment in Sudan and in most countries to which we fled seeking refuge. In Kenya, we were harassed regularly by the Kenyan police who stripped us naked and robbed us of our money. In Egypt, our human organs such as kidneys were the spare parts for many ruthless doctors trading in human organs. Many South Sudanese died as a result of having their organs removed or are living with single kidneys or with no uteruses.

So, I say voting in this election is historic because it is a restoration of democracy, liberty and human dignity that we South Sudanese lost over the years or indeed never had. We will vote to either be second class citizens in our own country or vote to face the dilemma of building a new nation from scratch.

Whatever the choice, the fate of our democracy is finally in our hands. That was the dream of our late leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabor. John Garang was a charismatic leader who dreamt of a New Sudan where all its citizens would have equitable rights.

He believed in a state governed by democratic principles where Arab Muslims do not apply Sharia law and Islamic ideologies on non-Arabs Christians and animists. He believed that such rule was achievable only if the Northern government was to become a secular government.

After the comprehensive peace agreement was signed, the Sudanese government had six years to make the unity vote attractive at the recent referendum. However, it failed on a number of levels. It failed to allocate quantifiable resources to develop social and public amenities and institutions in the South. It also failed to develop a road map that showed how to address issues which have been the key grievance of the South Sudanese people, namely inequitable distribution of resources. The Sudanese government after the peace accord took over the oil revenues budget portfolio and did not distribute the new found oil wealth evenly. It rather used fake revenue figures and hence did not allocate substantial budget to develop the South.

The South Sudanese became wiser over the years. They have learnt after many agreements and undertakings have been dishonoured by the subsequent Northern Islamic governments. One such agreement was in 1972, the Addis Ababa Agreement, that the South should not be governed by Sharia Law. This was short lived. In September 1983, the then President Nemeri re-enacted Sharia Laws saying that “the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement was neither a Koran nor a Bible”. This meant that it was subject to modifications that favoured the interest of the Northern Sudanese at the expense of their Christian Southern brothers and sisters.

All this meant that South Sudanese were tired of constant deceit, now they will undoubtedly vote for separation which many hope will bring a lasting peace and prosperity.

The people of South Sudan will not vote to remain at best, second class citizens, no matter what the challenges of independence.


  • Unity – 109
  • Secession- 9050
  • Invalid – 25
  • Unmarked- 18
  • Turnouts- 97.2%
  • Did not vote- 2.76%
  • For Separation – 98.35%
  • Unity- 1.18%

Postscript: Kot Monoah is a practising Australian lawyer in Melbourne. He completed the eight week journalism training program for Sudanese Australians run last year by the Centre for Advanced Journalism at The University of Melbourne with the support of the ABC, AMES, the Sidney Myer Foundation and the Victorian Multicultural Commission.


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