Educating the electorate

21 Dec 2010

Educating the electorate

Local organizations in Southern Sudan have launched education campaigns ahead of what could prove to be the most important vote in the region's history.

Southerners are set to go to the polls on 9 January to begin voting in the region's long-awaited referendum on whether to remain united with the north or secede.

If southerners opt for separation, the credibility and transparency of the referendum would have a direct bearing on the degree of acceptance the world's newest nation-state might expect from the international community.

Without effective voter education, noted Zahra Said of the Sudanese Network for Democratic Election (SuNDE), the credibility of the referendum could be open to the same challenges and criticisms that marred the country's historic general election of last April.

The SuNDE programme officer said messages aimed at mobilizing eligible voters to register for the referendum were appearing on FM radio stations and other media throughout the 17-day registration period that began on 15 November.

At the same time, SuNDE messages are urging southerners to refrain from registering for the referendum if they do not plan to cast ballots next January.

Founded in April 2009 to monitor the general election and inform residents in the country's 10 southern states, SuNDE is also using public events such as market days and meetings of community leaders to get out its message about the referendum.

"We shall also be targeting social gatherings, football matches (and) funeral rites, where we will get good numbers of people to pass messages that could target (the) community," said Ms. Said.

According to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission's official timetable, media campaigns commenced on 7 November and will conclude on 7 January.

SuNDE has organized road shows that are taking its staff members to major towns across Southern Sudan to publicize the registration process and eligibility requirements prospective voters must fulfill.

Miraya FM is also staging a series of road shows, which began in Wau and will finish in Juba on 1 December, the day voter registration is scheduled to end.

A similar campaign is being mounted by the Sudanese Organization for Non-violence and Development (SONAD) to target youth, members of political parties and community leaders, according to its executive director, Moses Monday John.

SONAD has hosted workshops for northern Sudanese who live in the south and southerners who live in North Sudan to address their rights and freedoms under the 2009 Referendum Act.

The citizenship status of these two groups of Sudanese in their respective parts of the country may become unclear in the event of a southern vote for secession. Mr. John said the workshops were intended to bring out expectations and fears of participants and highlight potential problems they may face during and after the referendum vote.

The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) is conducting its own voter education campaign in all 10 southern states and the disputed region of Abyei, which is scheduled to hold its own self-determination referendum next January.

"As a church and civil society organization, we shall continue to provide our support to the process with a clear commitment to peace, justice, equality and respect to humans rights, so that people make their choice in a peaceful and responsible manner without any intimidation or conditions," said SCC Civic and Voter Education Officer Gemma Hellen Pita.

Comprising six Christian churches, the SCC has stationed voter education trainers throughout Southern Sudan and Abyei to provide detailed information about the referendum at the grassroots level.

"We believe that informed, responsible voters help safeguard electoral integrity," said Ms. Pita.

"It is now left for (the trainers) to go out and inform voters on what to do, how they are going to do it and explain in detail to voters why their votes are very important," she added.