Salva Kiir ended his campaign on Friday for the presidency of semi-autonomous Southern Sudan, with one of his main qualifications in some voters’ eyes being his long experience as a rebel fighting Khartoum rule.
In his campaign stops, the incumbent Kiir made much of his role as a young man in the south’s first insurgency that ended in 1972 and as a founder of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that now leads the southern government.
After a two-decade southern insurgency against Khartoum, which ended in a 2005 peace deal, many in Sudan’s Christian and animist south see rebuilding as a chief priority.
But overshadowing voters’ daily concerns are plans for a referendum early next year to determine whether Southern Sudan will remain unified with the mainly Muslim north or secede.
“In these five years we have seen nothing that can attract the southerners to accept unity,” Kiir told a rally.
Kiir, who took power after the peace deal, has toured far-flung rural settlements, seeking to link himself with the upcoming referendum and capitalize on widespread resentment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Khartoum.
If north-south political squabbles lead to a delay or cancellation of the referendum, Southern Sudan may secede anyway, with worrying consequences for stability across east Africa.
For some, like Kom Belay, a chief of the Nuer tribe native to Southern Sudan’s Unity state, the elections mark a defining moment in what they see as an inevitable trajectory.
“It is being implemented as the prophet said, he promised the south freedom,” Belay said, referring to teachings of the tribe’s prophet, Ngundeng.
“Kiir is the one that will give us our freedom because he was carrying guns in the bush,” he said.
The race to select a new leader of southern states is one key part of the comprehensive national polls, beginning today, which will be a key test of Sudan’s fragile democracy.
The SPLM, spearheading a multi-party opposition boycott, has pulled out of elections in most of northern Sudan, accusing Bashir’s powerful ruling party of fraud.
The election that will go ahead this week, in the wake of the boycott, is expected to cement Bashir’s long rule and will be marked by widespread doubts about their legitimacy.
Appearing in his trademark giant cowboy hat, Kiir has used traditional Sudanese yarns — telling stories of hyenas and lions arguing over cattle — to illustrate points to voters.
Some seem to appreciate his calls for a greater female role in government and an end to inter-tribal fighting.
“He cannot be changed because we have a crucial period ahead of us,” Jason Burri, a teacher in the town of Yirol. At least seven white bulls were slaughtered in Yirol in Kiir’s honor.
Kiir may have to work hard for votes as voters grumble about government corruption and meager development.
His only significant competitor is Lam Akol, who formed the breakaway Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democratic Change last year.
Akol’s campaign has been a much quieter affair, although the arrests and harassment of several of his party agents in southern towns have worried international observers.
Akol split from the ex rebels at the height of the war to form his own armed group, and many southerners suspect him of being a mole from the north.
Kiir doesn’t seem worried about the challenge.
“I am not afraid of him, because if you’re going to your home you do not sneak at night but in daylight,” Kiir said in Bentiu, where hundreds of people in campaign T-shirts lined a large square.
Still, there could be tensions during three days of voting, adding to the challenges Sudan faces in pulling off the complex election, in which voters will select a national president, a president of Southern Sudan, parliaments and state leaders.
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