, NAIROBI, Kenya Jan 9 – Millions of jubilant south Sudanese living in Kenya started voting on Sunday in a long-awaited independence referendum that is expected to see their war-ravaged region emerge as Africa\’s newest nation.
Thousands of Sudanese lined up through the night to be among the first to vote in the weeklong, landmark referendum, expected to last for six days.
Nearly four million voters have been registered for the election promised in the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between the Muslim majority north and the mainly Christian and animist south.
"It\’s a great day for all of us, the day we are going to get rid of oppression," said Michael Awuk, a man of about 50 with the south Sudan flag emblazoned on his cap.
He was queuing at the Nairobi Railways Club in Nairobi, one of two polling stations in the Kenyan capital. The number of people wanting to vote as soon as polling started resulted in some jostling but things soon calmed down.
Peter Goni, 25, who has spent the last 20 years in Kenya, was in the queue long before voting started.
"Today is separation. We are going to get independence. Then there is no need for me to stay here in Kenya, I want to go back to my country," he told AFP.
Out of a total of some 60,000 Sudanese from the Diaspora registered to vote, just over 15,000 are in Kenya, some 5,000 in the capital Nairobi, and a further 5,000 in the extreme north west at Kakuma refugee camp.
In all, eight polling stations have been set up in Kenya.
In neighbouring Uganda where some 13,000 south Sudanese are registered to vote at 11 polling stations, the same degree of enthusiasm was evident.
"I wanted to be number one but in the end I was number nine. I came late because of transport," Michael Mannath, 30, told AFP at a polling station set up in the capital Kampala.
Mannath, who hails from Bentiu in oil-rich Unity State, described himself as "one of the lost boys of south Sudan."
He moved to Ethiopia in 1993, then Kenya, and ultimately to Texas, where he works at a Tyson Foods plant.
Although there was an option to vote in Texas, he was not confident his vote would actually count, so he took two months off work, and flew to Kampala to stay with family, to register and vote.
"I prayed to God that I would live to see this day," he said wearing a black suit, white shirt and a black tie. This is a day for good clothes. This is a special day for me."
In Nairobi, regular police and Sudan Ambassador Majok Guangdong managed to restore order by allowing voters into the hall in clusters of 15 people who have to complete voting exercise before allowing in another group.
The Nairobi Railways Club centre which has over 3,000 registered voters saw hundreds of south Sudanese who live in Kenya turning to cast their vote from as early as 2am.
At the same time, Guangdong appealed to the electorate to cast their votes on the first, or at very least the second, day of the polling period.
Rev Jacob Nhail who left Sudan in 1987 when he was eleven years old, says the exercise was the beginning of getting their freedom.
"Ever since we got independence from the British in 1966, we never got anything good that\’s why we want to separate, if you compare the South with the North it is developed and it is a desert on our side we have everything like petrol and they just took our things and develop the north and left us behind," he said.
As voting in the Southern Sudan referendum begins, nationals from the country resident in Kenya, says that they are ready to have their own state.
Most of those who turned up to cast their vote at the Nairobi Railways Club said that the referendum will give them the power to utilize their untapped resources.
"We have to prove to the world that we want to have our nation, when I saw Bashir it was like he was crying but we are already out of the north" said a voter.
They were reacting to statement by Sudan\’s President Omar Al Bashir who expressed concerns about possible instability in the south following the referendum, saying that the south may not have the ability to cope with many problems.
Daniel Yor Deng and Rev, Jacob Nhail says voting for the separation or unity is a process they have been waiting for adding that they are ready to go back and develop the Africa\’s newest state.
"When the results come out I will go up there and work and develop my country like I have seen here in Nairobi, I have seen tall building here," said Rev Nhail whose name means blessing from above.
The polling centre in Nairobi was marked by scenes of women and youths chanting freedom songs to mark the momentous occasion.