Sleeping with the ballot boxes in Sudan’s referendum

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Across Sudan, election officials are learning to live with the ballot boxes. Some even guard them during the night in order to ensure a credible and fair voting process

By Nils Carstensen

For three days now, Kiinyera Saffar and his team of referendum officials have lived alongside the transparent plastic ballot boxes and - not least - their precious content: the votes cast by millions of southern Sudanese.

Much has been said and written about how voters in Sudan’s referendum have endured endless hours in the scorching sun in order to cast their vote. For most though, that was a one-off event that ended a few hours later, when they finally got to vote.

With the overwhelming turnout on Sunday and Monday, a very large proportion of the votes have been cast across many polling centres, and the long queues of waiting voters have disappeared. But, for some, the waiting at the centres did not stop on Sunday evening. Thousands of referendum officials and observers across Sudan are learning how to live with ballot boxes all day, seven days in a row.

In many polling centres in the countryside, local officials and observers take their commitment to extremes.

“At the end of the day we pack up and secure the ballot boxes and all other essential documents and equipment,” explains Kiinyera Saffar, who is the chairperson at the Amee East Polling Centre. It is a small centre with only 480 registered voters, set up under a big tree near Amee village in rural Eastern Equatoria.

“Then we bring all this directly to the local administration centre, where it is locked up in a room. National security officers, staff like myself, and even some of the national observers, then sleep just outside the office all night”.

For Kiinyera Saffar and his colleagues in the threadbare shadow of a tree in Amee, the remaining days up to the conclusion of the referendum look set to become one very long wait. With four days of polling to go and, at most, some 50 voters missing, the remaining days in the sun and heat will be a real test of their commitment.

At the polling centre in Torit prison, that wait may appear even longer and more tedious. A total of 144 inmates are registered as voters and less than 15 votes are missing so far. “But of course, we’ll just be here ready for those who may come. The referendum laws says we should stay open up to Saturday evening, so that is what we’ll do,” stresses one of the referendum officials in the prison.

Still, the mere fact that inmates are allowed to vote is highly appreciated. “I voted like most of the others on Sunday,” says 27-year-old Paul Longori. “When I was sentenced to six months in jail back in November, I was afraid I would not be able to vote. I’m just so happy we got that chance - the referendum is just as important for us in the prison as it is for those outside.”

Nils Carstensen of Dan Church Aid is ACT Alliance’s Special Correspondent covering the southern Sudan referendum.