JUBA, Southern Sudan — As part of a tour of the whole country before the historic referendum that could split Sudan into two, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir visited Juba yesterday along with a host of federal ministers. His message – in line with recent comments about North-South amity – was soft and conciliatory in tone and a marked departure from earlier more rhetorical statements.
“We have got to this point. Whatever the results are, we will surpass them with patience and accept the results even if you chose to secede,” said President Bashir at a press conference held in the Presidential Palace, addressing southerners. “We will honor your choice.”
Ahead of his daylong trip, hundreds of SPLA and SAF soldiers lined up along the main avenues of the capital between the airport and into the city. “Boda-boda” motorcycle traffic, usually ubiquitous in this city, was completely cleared from the streets. Ministerial offices remained shut as most government officials thronged at the airport and the palace awaiting the president’s arrival.
President Bashir’s reception by the Government of Southern Sudan also broke from the norm. Vice-President Salva Kiir waited on a red carpet at the airport along with tens of other dignitaries. When President Bashir’s plane finally arrived, a military-style band comprising of both SAF and SPLA units played a fanfare.
As the motorcade made its way through Juba, hundreds of people lined the streets waving fliers with the separation logo, sloganeering loudly, albeit in a merry way. “We are waving him goodbye,” joked one by-stander. “This is his last farewell.”
This is the first time President Bashir has visited Juba since the elections in early 2010. As southerners head to the polls on Sunday, many have gladly welcomed his assuaging remarks over the last few days. “He has assured us that if the people of the South decide to vote and form their own country, he will be the first head of state to recognize the new country,” said GOSS Minister of Information Barnaba Marial. “Although he has a preference for a united country, he has given the South encouragements, which we welcome.”
The president departed later in the afternoon, after meeting with civil society groups and conducting a series of meetings with southern political heads. He pledged to offer technical, logistical, and other forms of support for the South should it be needed. He also shared ideas with the country’s Vice President and GOSS President Salva Kiir on issues related to implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, of which the referendum is a key component. Negotiations over post-referendum arrangements and outstanding CPA provisions are ongoing between the North and South.
Some claim that his stopover is an informal, intrinsic acceptance of the results before they are out. “It is part of conceding,” said one government official. “Bashir has touched the water and found it hot. The international community does not believe him anymore. So he has to build credibility and admit loss.”