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Census Adds to Brewing Storm in the South

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Census Adds to Brewing Storm in the South

Posted by Maggie Fick on May 23, 2009

Nairobi – The Sudanese government has released the long awaited—and highly controversial—results of its recent national census, a pivotal step in the slow (and potentially perilous) march toward the country’s already-delayed elections, which are now slated for February 2010.

Although the overall figures for Sudan’s census were leaked last month, the more contentious region-specific statistics were not released by the Sudanese government in Khartoum until Thursday. The president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, had already expressed concern with the leaked numbers, pointing to what his government saw as an inaccurate representation of the Darfuri population. Yesterday, a number of key officials in the SPLM, the Government of Southern Sudan, or GoSS, ruling party, came out with guns blazing and you could hear the frustration and discontent with the results all the way down here in Nairobi, Kenya. From  a senior SPLM official quoted by VOA:

It is a political design; it is connected with the elections, and the SPLM position is very clear that this census is not useful to be used for the elections or for the power sharing and wealth sharing…

This census should not be used… for power-sharing in the country…

The census figures report Sudan’s total population at 39.15 million, with 8.26 million, or 21 percent, living in southern Sudan. The GoSS had already expressed their wish that the population of the South be registered as a third of Sudan’s total population, based on the results of the South’s last census, conducted in 1986 (just after the onset of the North-South conflict).

While these figures are based on previous census data, the comments from the southern Sudanese government highlight the issue of “expectations” from various constituencies within Sudan of what the census figures “should” be. It is somewhat ironic for political leaders from both the North and the South to make public pronouncements about what they “expect” the results to be, given that a census is by definition a technical assessment not based on any subjective political motivations.

A senior SPLM official also used the opportunity to suggest that the North’s ruling National Congress Party would tamper with the elections themselves, as quoted by Reuters:

We believe in many ways this census is politically motivated and designed. It is clear the only elections the NCP are ready for are unfair and unfree elections.

Several people in the know that I have spoken to in Nairobi in the past few days posited that the Southern leadership—in particular, SPLM leaders such as GoSS president Salva Kiir—view the elections as the last hurdle to clear before the final step in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement: the 2011 referendum for the South’s independence. Following this logic, if the South can manage to hold complicated elections (think 12 separate ballots) in an extremely difficult environment, then the GoSS ruling party, the SPLM, will have succeeded in proving its ability to govern an autonomous region—i.e., the new state of southern Sudan. However, if the NCP rigs the elections, as SPLM officials recently suggested they may attempt to do, these botched elections (no matter who or how many of the parties are at fault) may cast doubt from the international community on the ability of the South to govern itself after 2011. But at this moment, all eyes are focused on the myriad political, logistical, and technical challenges facing the GoSS in the run-up to the elections, which are a mere eight months away. With constituency demarcation, voter registration, and voter education still a long way off, this deadline is already a cause for concern at the local, national, and international levels.

Another issue is that the census was conducted in markedly different fashions in the North and in the South; in the North, all of the tallies were done by hand. In the South, the census bureau received technical support from USAID census experts (who were forbidden by Khartoum from operating in the North) and used a computerized system throughout the process.

As I am en route to southern Sudan right now, I hope to provide more context on the rapidly developing situation in the South here on the blog, particularly in the wake of the mounting dispute over the census results and the sharp uptick in ethnic violence in the region in recent months. Stay tuned.

N.B.: For an excellent history of all of Sudan’s elections since 1956, see this recent report by the Rift Valley Institute.


This is the first in a series of posts on southern Sudan by Enough policy assistant Maggie Fick, who is currently conducting research for Enough in the region.