Sudan: Decades of petitioning led to victory

Thursday, February 10, 2011

  • referendum_result_show-1.jpgCelebrations at the John Garang Memorial in Juba, southern Sudan during the January 2011 referendum.
  • referendum_result_show-2.jpgBallot paper with illustration for "Unity" and "Secession" used in Sudan's January 2011 referendum,
  • referendum_result_show-3.jpgWaiting to vote in January 2011 referendum in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba.
  • referendum_result_show-4.jpgCephas Andrago Lorolla, 84, voting in Juba. After a lifetime of of suffering and war he hopes the referendum will bring peace and freedom.
  • referendum_result_show-5.jpgArchbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (left) and Catholic Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro as they vote in Juba.
  • referendum_result_show-6.jpgVice President of Sudan and President of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayaydit during the January 2011 referendum.
  • referendum_result_show-7.jpgVoters studying the local results at Suk Hajer Polling Centre in Juba. Here 3,289 voted for separation of the south against only 96 votes for unity.
  • referendum_result_show-8.jpg"Khartoum - bye bye", says Gibson Misa, a rebel soldier during the war, as he checks the local results at Suk Hajer Polling Centre in Juba.

by Nils Carstensen

“For once, I think we should give ourselves a big pat on the back. We have actually achieved what we wanted,” said Reverend Peter Tibi, who has committed years to peace and justice work in Sudan.

Rev Tibi heads up an organisation working alongside ACT members that gave the Sudanese public training and motivation to vote in the lead-up to south Sudan’s referendum on succession last month. With support from international partners in ACT, they also recruited and trained scores of domestic and international observers for the vote.

“When you see how many national and international observers we were able to mobilise for the referendum, you realise how strong our alliance have grown over time,” Rev Tibi explains.

At a 2002 meeting in London, a group of church leaders and ACT members, gathered as the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, convinced international friends and partners to accept the slogan Let My People Choose. “Nine years later - that is exactly what has happened. For the first time ever people have exercised their right to choose,” Rev Tibi says.

That call was all the more important as it came when leading figures in the official peace negotiations between north and south rejected the right to self-determination for southern Sudan.

ACT and the churches were not alone in calling for people’s right to choose but they contributed a popular rallying call and lent institutional momentum to a growing number of Sudanese and international activists, diplomats and - not least - a large part of the rank and file within the main rebel groups in the south. Within weeks, the right to self-determination was back in the peace negotiations and eventually became a cornerstone in the final agreement.

Decades of quiet lobbying
But the role of the Sudanese churches in issues of peace and justice neither started nor ended with the 2002 rallying call for the right to self-determination. “Without the churches there would have been no peace agreement in 1972 and no agreement in 2005. There would have been no referendum now. The church has been the backbone of the spirit behind our struggle all along,” says Roman Catholic Bishop (Emeritus) Paride Taban.

Bishop Taban would probably be the last to admit it but his own life may be one of the best micro- prisms through to glimpse the contributions and sacrifices of Sudanese church members since the 1950s.

Speaking out got him jailed twice - once by northern authorities and once by southern rebels. In the late 1980s, when his home town was besieged during the war and hunger ran rampant, Bishop Taban led a convoy with food right through the front lines of battle to reach civilians on the other side.

As the conflict and suffering in Sudan worsened, relief efforts by ACT, the churches and international partners grew into two decades of million-dollar humanitarian projects which continue up to today. ACT members are currently positioning relief items in different parts of the country to assist some of the hundred of thousands of people leaving the north and returning to southern Sudan before the country divides into two states.

During the years of war, Bishop Taban preached peace and practised reconciliation - between north and south as well as among different rivalling groups within the south. The churches became instrumental in pressuring different rebels factions in the south to stop killing fellow southerners and reconcile their differences. This work continues until today.

As atrocities and conflicts intensified during the war, church leaders and activists became the most persistent voices insisting on justice and respect for basic human rights with both authorities in Khartoum and the rebel groups in the south. Similar messages were spread abroad by ACT. The messages of peace were taken abroad on advocacy tours to many parts of the world.

In October 2010, Bishop Taban was part of a group which visited the United States and Britain ringing the alarm bells of the risk of renewed war in Sudan in the run up to the referendum. That warning was heard and taken on board by senior officials in London, Washington DC and by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

The reason ACT and the churches were successful in their campaign is clear, Bishop Taban says. “Our people have been so demoralised and without a voice for so long. We must try to be that voice - to be there to help them get their rights. We’re the conscience of the people. We’re not like the politicians who quickly take to big cars and fine offices. We’re staying with our people - we’ve always done that.”

Nils Carstensen of DanChurchAid is ACT Alliance’s correspondent covering the southern Sudan referendum.