Infisal! Infisal! Infisal!

(A journey in South Sudan)

Jonathan Littell

They’ll never pull it off, people said. Too little time, too little money, obstruction from the North … The April 2010 elections – both presidential and local – had gone poorly, ‘highly chaotic, non-transparent, and vulnerable to electoral manipulation’, as the international observers from the Carter Center declared. And a failed referendum would be even worse than no referendum at all: it would open the door to all of Khartoum’s objections, and lead straight to another civil war. But the autonomous government of South Sudan refused to make any concessions: ‘The date [of the referendum] is sacrosanct,’ thundered the president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, a tall, stocky, bearded man almost never photographed without his cowboy hat. Yet to everyone’s great surprise, not only did they pull it off, but it actually went well. Really well.


The streets of Juba, on the morning of 9 January, the first day of the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, were calm, almost empty. Ordinarily they are extremely busy. The main streets were metalled not long ago and the traffic never lets up: there are 4x4s with radios and humanitarian logos, more luxurious SUVs belonging to government officials (with synthetic furs covering the seats and an ornate tin box for tissues on the dashboard), vans, pickup trucks, motorcycles, endless streams of public minibuses, the occasional Hummer, bright yellow or orange. There are many substantial-looking buildings, bars, restaurants, businesses, cellphone and computer shops, beauty salons, clothing stores. It’s not Nairobi or Kampala, the neighbouring capital cities, but still you feel a real dynamism, a feverish circulation of goods, people and money. Of course there are poor people too, you just have to look around. At night they sleep in corners on dark streets, or in front of the walls topped with concertinas of barbed wire which protect the compounds of the humanitarian organisations. Here and there, between neighbourhoods, you can glimpse little improvised camps of displaced persons, with huts made from branches, sometimes covered with white or blue international aid tarpaulins.

The elite here are the Nilotic people, Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk, most of whom arrived in 2005 when the Southern rebels of the SPLA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, took power; as for the local population, the great majority are Karo – Mandari, Bari, Kakua, among others. Many of them were refugees in Uganda or Kenya during the war and speak English, but the lingua franca is still Juba Arabic, a somewhat impoverished dialect. Peter, my boda-boda (motorcycle-taxi) driver, is Ugandan; for although the major businesses here all belong to government ministers and governors, or to their children, the gilded youth of Juba who returned from abroad after the peace agreements, almost all ordinary businesses are run by foreigners. The hotels and restaurants lining the Nile are often Kenyan, Ugandan or Ethiopian; the Eritreans control the water-trucking, the Darfuri own most of the shops, and other businesses are owned by the Arabs from the North. For a young man like Peter, Juba is an Eldorado: he earns three times more here than he could at home.

Outside the John Garang mausoleum, a vast empty lot surrounded by a tall iron fence with gilded spikes, I suddenly find myself swallowed up in a swarming crowd. All along the fence, thousands of people are patiently waiting in line. In the street, among policemen and soldiers wearing brightly coloured camouflage, a group of men in sports gear come forward, synthetic leopardskin around their hips and leaves attached to their arms, chanting in unison and brandishing sticks. They form a circle and begin a frenzied dance; some blow into their hollow sticks, which end in a plastic bottle with its bottom cut out, while others make huge leaps. Half a dozen white journalists, crouching in the centre of the circle, film or photograph them. It’s beautiful: the jet-black skin of the dancers – Dinka – gleams with sweat; they laugh showing all their teeth while they jump, displaying a ritualised but very real joy. In front of the entrance to the enclosure, the crowd presses in, tension rises, in a few instants the scene threatens to turn into a riot; the soldiers, nervous, shout and push people back, a few journalists try to slip between their arms, the gate slams shut and the crowd masses against it.

Inside, it’s much calmer. Long queues wait in front of the polling stations, between the TV networks’ satellite antennae and mountains of equipment. It is eight o’clock in the morning and President Salva Kiir has just finished a brief speech and become the first to vote, ceremonially, in front of an army of cameras; already, his convoy of black SUVs is setting off, bodyguards perched on the running boards, immense Dinka in impeccable suits, their foreheads scarified with a V. Voting has begun, the lucky people at the front of the queues wind their way, past the camera flashes, between officials wearing yellow fluorescent vests; the women have put on their beautiful Sunday dresses, the men their best suits or ceremonial outfits. Near the awning set up for special guests, George Clooney, who is deeply involved in Sudanese causes, holds forth in front of a throng of cameras; a little further on, the American senator and former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry speaks calmly to a few journalists. Between photo shoots, journalists exchange the latest information, often contradictory, about the fighting that took place the day before in Abyei, a contested oil-producing region just north of the demarcation line. Japanese and Norwegian election observers studiously take notes; Western diplomats congratulate ministers; the journalists are already desperate for something else to film. A group heads for Garang’s tomb, and several photographers run after them.

John Garang de Mabior is a mythic figure here, the only Southern Sudanese called by his second name, ‘Doctor Garang’. In 1983, a respected officer in the Sudanese army despite his Southern roots, Garang was dispatched to Bor, the capital of his native state, to put down a mutiny; instead, he joined the rebel troops and led them to Ethiopia, where he founded the SPLA with the aim of ending the oppression of the black peoples of the South by the Arab clique that has controlled Sudan since independence in 1956. The civil war that followed, Sudan’s second, lasted 22 years. Authoritarian, even dictatorial, Garang led his rebel army with an iron fist through splits and coup attempts, until he forced Khartoum, early in 2005, to sign the peace agreement that resulted in today’s referendum. But Garang did not long survive his victory: in late July 2005, scarcely three weeks after the creation of the autonomous government, he was killed in a helicopter accident on his way back from Uganda. His grave is rather basic, a rectangle tiled with bathroom marble, decorated with pots of plastic flowers and two large framed portraits, beneath an octagonal corrugated roof. Several women in the group approaching the tomb wear white T-shirts that read WE MISS YOU JOHN. One of them, no longer young, kneels in front of the grave, murmurs a prayer, then kisses the portrait before getting up, half in tears, to embrace her entourage; a young man behind her strikes up a Dinka song. The woman is Rebecca Garang, the hero’s widow. The wind sweeping across the enclosure knocks over the flowerpots. The marble is already broken in places; beneath the frame’s cracked glass, Garang, with his oval head and pointy white beard, stares straight out.

At the University of Juba, the scene is the same, long lines snaking around the buildings and through the courtyard. Wek, a young man from Warrap state who studied in Texas and Missouri and has been waiting since five o’clock in the morning, laughs: ‘I really thought I’d be first!’ It must be ten o’clock and there are still at least 300 people in front of him. Surrounded by friends, Wek exults. ‘It’s the last walk to freedom. Separation is the only way we can get our freedom. You can feel the freedom in the South. Have you ever been to Khartoum? Khartoum is a different vibration. Khartoum is crazy.’ The impressive thing is how happy and proud the people are of this vote. As soon as you look at them or point a camera at them, they raise their voting card; some women, as they drop their ballot into the box, ululate with joy; when they leave, people hold up their left index finger, covered in indelible ink. A lanky young Dinka, almost ridiculously overdressed, asks me to take a picture of him with his own camera as he casts his vote; no doubt the photo will be shown proudly to his grandchildren, and to their children too. Thanks to this referendum the people are finally taking control of their destiny. It is not a foregone conclusion, a masquerade whose real meaning is decided in private by a few men, like so many elections in Africa and elsewhere. The military victory against the North and the peace agreement were the work of Garang and the SPLA, which was often as predatory and dangerous to the population of the South as its enemies in Khartoum, but the SPLA only made separation and independence a possibility. Each individual is now deciding on these matters himself, and when he votes, he is fully aware of that. At the end of the day, the queues at the university haven’t got any shorter; many people, who have been waiting for a dozen hours or more, will not be able to vote today. Outside, on the streets, the police presence is still light; from time to time, you see a pick-up truck with a heavy machine gun mounted in the back. The polling stations close and night falls quickly. The next day, it all starts again.

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[*] A map of Sudan can be seen here.