, JUBA, Dec 9 – Dancing crowds waving the flag of south Sudan took to the streets of the regional capital Juba on Thursday to mark the one-month countdown to a landmark referendum on independence.
"This is our time, this is the moment in our history when we say freedom," said Henry Lemor, who was among the more than 2,000 demonstrators chanting slogans in favour of separation from the north.
"We say, bye-bye to Khartoum," he said, waving his open hand — the symbol for independence on the referendum ballot paper prepared for the south\’s electorate, among which illiteracy is widespread.
The crowd marched through Juba before listening to speeches at the grave of late rebel leader John Garang, who led the mostly Christian south to a 2005 peace deal with the Muslim north that ended Africa\’s longest-running civil war.
Religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, joined the demonstration.
"The people of Juba have come out to support the vote for secession," said Bishop Paul Yugusuk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.
"We are ready and excited waiting for freedom from Khartoum and the north," he added, sounding a plastic horn with a sign attached bearing the words "The Final Trumpet."
Dr Ashraf Ali Amule, a representative of the South Sudan Muslim Community, said: "We are hoping for a separate south Sudan, where all religions can be practised freely and in peace under a secular government."
Southerners have been holding marches every month since July to mark the countdown to the referendum and show their determination that the vote should take place as promised under the peace deal.
Organising the vote will be a major logistical challenge in a vast region which has virtually no paved roads.
But electoral officials have played down concerns that that will prevent it being held on schedule.
There are a number of key issues that still have to be hammered out before polling day, including the final demarcation of the border between north and south, the sharing of oil revenues, and the status of southerners in the north and northerners in the south if the region votes to break away.
"Remember those who died," shouted demonstrator Mary Ngong in reference to the estimated two million people who died in the 1983-2005 civil war. "Our martyrs are never forgotten."
"Separation means peace," one mass-produced poster read, above a symbol of two shackled fists breaking free of their chains. "Forced unity is slavery," read another.
Three weeks of voter registration for the referendum ended on Wednesday, with almost three million people signing up to vote in the south, electoral officials said.
But just 115,000 southerners resident in the north enrolled, according to official final figures released on Thursday.
A contested 2008 census counted some 500,000 southerners in the north, but the autonomous southern regional government and aid agencies estimate the southern population in the north to be at least 1.5 million.
Those eligible to vote in the referendum include permanent residents of south Sudan since 1956, when the country gained independence from Britain, and those who can trace their ancestry to an established south Sudanese ethnic group.