MELUT, SUDAN // Thousands of Southern Sudanese queued up yesterday at schools, churches and under trees to register to vote in a referendum widely expected to lead to the break-up of Africa's largest country.
Months late in starting, the registration process began with great fanfare in the southern capital of Juba, where the Southern Sudan president Salva Kiir registered.
"People must come out en masse. Otherwise people would have been fighting and dying for no cause. The referendum is done only once," Mr Kiir told the crowd.
Registration will continue until December 1 and seven days of polling begin on January 9. The United Nations estimates that five million Southern Sudanese are eligible to register for the referendum, including an expatriate population scattered from Australia to Canada.
In this quiet Nile riverside town just over 200km from the disputed north-south border, the first day of the two-week registration period seemed like any other. Young boys rode donkey carts to nearby water pumps and women sold tea in tin-roofed roadside shops.
At one of the two registration centres in Melut, though, excitement and anticipation were in the air.
Gieth Kon Awlan, an 18-year old secondary-school pupil, was the only English-speaker among the crowd gathered in two queues — one for women, one for men — outside the classroom where registration staff said they had already registered 200 people.
When Mr Awlan said he would cast his vote for separation of Southern Sudan, other boyish-looking young men around him recognised the word and said they too would be voting for separation.
"It is good for all of us," Mr Awlan said, gesturing to his fellow southerners and referring to independence, which the US scretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently said would be the referendum's "inevitable" outcome.
Young men such as Mr Awlan joined elderly women wearing floor-length colourful fabric that also covered their heads. This area of Southern Sudan forms the northernmost tip of the territory, and given its proximity to the north, some Islamic traditions, including dress, have been incorporated into the culture of Melus and other communities.
The referendum is the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south conflict - Africa's longest civil war fought over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil, in which two million people died.
The pro-independence mood came in the face of a campaign led from Khartoum by Omar Hassan al Bashir, president of Sudan, for southerners to choose to stay united with the north.
Southern leaders have accused the north of trying to delay and disrupt the plebiscite to keep control of the south's oil reserves, and warned there is a risk of a return to conflict. Mr Bashir has dismissed the accusations and promised to accept the result of the referendum.
"The country is facing a crucial stage of its history," the head of the referendum's organising commission, Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, said before the start of registration.
More than 2,600 registration centres opened across the south, with an additional 150-plus opening in the north, where the mood was reportedly subdued. In recent weeks, thousands of Southern Sudanese have left their homes in Khartoum to return to the south for the vote.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is running registration centres in eight countries: Australia, Britain, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and the United States.
The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission has employed more than 10,000 staff to run the domestic registration centres and assist in administrative tasks for the registration process, which has been delayed by political disputes between the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum and the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
The 2005 peace deal not only promised a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan in January 2011, but also a separate self-determination vote for the people of Abyei, a disputed border zone. Preparations for this vote have not begun becauzse of a continuing row over eligibility for this referendum, which will give voters the choice between Abyei remaining in the north's Southern Kordofan state or becoming part of Southern Sudan.
Eligibility is also a serious concern in the southern referendum. The US-based Carter Centre, which is observing both votes, expressed concern over the lack of clarity on how voters can prove they are eligible Southern Sudanese citizens, noting that the Referendum Act gives "little guidance" on this issue.
Particularly in border areas, where there has been intermarriage between northern and southern Sudanese for decades, observers fear complications could arise over the eligibility of a would-be voter with both northern and southern tribal ancestry.
The spokesman for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission said on Saturday that the body charged with carrying out the self-determination vote had not prepared a list of ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to the south because "the indigenous southern Sudanese are well known".
The start of registration came as the leaders of the north and south announced that they had agreed upon a framework for resolving a number of contentious issues impeding full implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including demarcation of the north-south border.
"In the event of secession, this will be the longest inter-state border in Africa, hosting in its immediate vicinity on both sides a significant proportion of Sudan's population. The Parties have committed themselves to maintaining a 'soft-border'," an African Union statement said.
Despite the positive outcomes of the latest round of negotiations between Khartoum and Juba, analysts say secession of the south, source of more than 80 per cent of the country's oil, would be a bitter pill for the north to swallow.
* With additional reporting by Reuters