, JUBA, Jan 7 – Western diplomats, elder statesmen and even a Hollywood star descended on south Sudan on Friday as one of the world\’s poorest regions finally prepared to have its say on independence after a 50-year wait.
The beat of African drums reverberated around the regional capital Juba from early morning as hordes of youthful campaigners, who have held monthly rallies to ensure the promised referendum goes ahead, gathered for a final exuberant "march for freedom" from the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
Envoys of the major powers, which played a key role in brokering the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa\’s longest-running civil war, were locked in one final diplomatic push in the Sudanese capital to ensure no last-minute hitches mar the landmark vote which was its centrepiece.
"Just two days to go -we\’re going to vote and then the country will be split in two," crowed Archelango, an elderly southerner newly returned from years as a refugee to have his say.
Cars festooned in the black, red and green of the southern flag went round and round the dusty streets and potholed pistes of Juba to ramp up enthusiasm for the week-long polling which begins on Sunday.
Although opposition to independence has been well-nigh invisible, turnout will be important because the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulates the referendum will be decided by majority, or 60 percent of the 3.8 million registered voters.
In Khartoum, US envoy Scott Gration was poised for a last round of talks with government officials and referendum organisers hot on the heels of Senator John Kerry, as Washington pulled out the stops to ensure no hitches got in the way of the implementation of the peace deal in which it was so instrumental.
Former US president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre foundation has deployed poll observers across the south, was also locked in talks in Khartoum.
Carter said his message to northern leaders was: "Just accept the decision of the southerners in the referendum peacefully, no matter whether it is to stay part of Sudan or to form a new nation."
In New York, the UN Security Council praised both sides for surprising the international community with their efforts to make sure the independence vote went ahead on schedule.
In a rare act of praise for President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, over his government\’s handling of the seven-year-old rebellion in Darfur, the council said its members "appreciate" his stance on the referendum.
But it also expressed "deep concern" over the continuing failure of northern and southern leaders to resolve their dispute over the oil-rich district of Abyei, which had been due to hold a simultaneous vote on its future on Sunday that has now been indefinitely postponed.
"Members of the council strongly urge the parties to quickly reach agreement on Abyei and to resolve critical post-referendum issues including the border, security, citizenship, debt, assets, currency and natural resources," the statement said.
Hollywood star George Clooney, who arrived in Juba on Thursday in a show of support, was due to head to Abyei on Friday to voice his own concern.
Threats by leaders of the district\’s settled pro-southern Ngok Dinka population to take unilateral action over the poll delay have sparked fears of clashes with heavily armed Misseriya Arabs from the north who use its waters for seasonal pasture.
The southern head of the United Nations Mission to Sudan, David Gressly, expressed optimism that calm would reign for the referendum.
"For the last several weeks – several months probably – we have seen the lowest level of insecurity in southern Sudan since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has been signed," he said.
"It has been a very conducive environment for the registration, and we expect the same to continue for the polling period."
But aid agency Oxfam took issue with the peacekeeping mission\’s focus, saying it should have devoted fewer resources to the referendum and more to the protection of civilians from persistent low-intensity violence that has claimed nearly 1,000 lives over the past year.
"The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan has so far failed to prioritise the protection of local people. Despite the challenges it faces, the mission must do more to quickly identify risks and respond effectively to outbreaks of violence," it said.