JUBA, Sudan (AP) – Voters in Southern Sudan expressed excitement over a seven-day vote beginning Sunday that was expected to result in the creation of the world's newest country.
Voters will face one simple ballot choice – unity with the Khartoum-based north or independence. Because only 15 percent of the region's 8.7 million people can read, the ballot is illustrated – a solitary hand for separation and two clasped hands for unity.
Southern voters – as well as international observers and analysts – expect an overwhelming vote for separation.
"The outcome will be 100 percent for separation. That is very high but that is actually what I predict. If it's not 100 it will come to 90-something percent,'' said Tom Drani, 48, a motorcycle taxi driver in the southern capital of Juba. "We are saying goodbye to Khartoum, the capital of old Sudan. We are coming to have our own capital here in Juba.''
If the vote passes, Sudan – Africa's biggest country – would see a border drawn between the north, which is mostly Arab and Muslim, and the south, populated mostly by blacks who are Christian or animist.
The vote is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended a north-south civil war that lasted two decades and killed 2 million people. Some 3.9 million people registered to cast ballots in the seven-day vote. The referendum must pass by simple majority but achieve a turnout of at least 60 percent.
After the polls close next Saturday, counting will begin at local polling stations as local and international observers watch. Results will be posted at each polling site, giving the world an early look at piecemeal results. Final results won't be certified until February.
After the vote, the north and south still need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, rights to the White Nile, official borders and citizenship rights. Full independence wouldn't take place before July 9, when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, expires and a new agreement must take its place.
Southern Sudan, a Texas-sized territory, has very little infrastructure outside Juba. It is among the world's poorest, least healthy and least educated regions. The U.N. says a typical 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school. Aid groups say southerners streaming home from the north are creating dire shortages of basic services.
Violence could still flare along border hotspots and in the region of Abyei, which had also been scheduled to hold a freedom referendum on Sunday but no longer is. Instead, it is likely to be subject to continued negotiations between the north and south, brokered alternately by the African Union and the United States.
Southern officials on Saturday reported that clashes in the south's Unity state killed at least six. Clashes were also reported in Abyei, possibly between a northern Arab tribe and black southerners. The death toll was in dispute.
The U.S. has said it may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if the government in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, helps the referendum come off peacefully.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Sen. John Kerry and actor and peace activist George Clooney are in Juba for the vote.