Canada Votes: IOM faces a skeptical southern Sudanese community in Calgary

IanSmith

Ian Smith (Center), the Southern Sudan Referendum OCRV Coordinator for Canada was pummeled with questions by members of Calgary’s south Sudanese community on Saturday, November 6, 2010 at St. Luke Sudanese church (Photo by: William Lochi).  

(Calgary, AB NSV) – The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the group tasked with organizing Southern Sudan’s Out of Country Registration & Voting (OCRV), sought to allay fears for a deeply suspicious community at a church meeting on Saturday, but whether they had succeeded or not was not immediately apparent.

Ian Smith, the Southern Sudan Referendum OCRV Coordinator for Canada was pummeled with questions by members of Calgary’s south Sudanese community, most of whom wanted to be reassured about the safety of their vote and the organization’s independence from Khartoum’s presumed influence.

Some suggested the IOM was compromised, and it could not be trusted to safeguard the process and deliver a credible referendum result. 

One by one, however, Mr. Smith tried to address some built up skepticism and seemingly innocuous concerns about the vote. On the fear that Khartoum may tamper with the votes, as most questions dwelt on this issue, Smith said those that would be employed at Canada’s two registration/voting centers in Calgary and Toronto would be southern Sudanese.

The registration, identification of undocumented voters, the voting process and the vote count, he said, will be overseen by southerners.  He said the results would be announced at Canada’s two voting centers following the vote-- in the glare of media-- before the records are sent to Khartoum.

The mention of the final results passing through Khartoum nearly derailed the meeting. The Khartoum-wary southerners requested that a copy be also sent to Juba to mitigate any unforeseen northern schemes to steal the votes, to which Smith said he would look into the concern.

Prior to the IOM’s briefing, the southern Sudanese community held a series of meetings where members had hoped to reconcile the community’s polarized views on voting, mostly unsuccessfully. The meetings were split between two camps: those who wished to vote and those that rejected the voting process.

At times, it seemed as if the division was based largely on the tribal grounds. The Friday meeting was exclusively a get-together of the sub-community leaders.  Almost all of the sub-community leaders claimed all their members would or would not vote in the upcoming referendum poll, to an open disgruntlement from those who disagreed with their community leader's position.

The presence of Mr. Mum Majak, the head of the GoSS Mission to Canada, and his deputy, Mr. Morris Batale, quelled tempers for an otherwise tense debate.

Although the duo struggled to reassert their authority after weeks of hands off approach since the IOM issue first cropped up, they said unambiguously that the voting was an individual exercise. “If you are going to vote, do it quietly,” said Mum. “If you are not going to vote, also do it quietly,” he added.

He implored the southern Sudanese sub-communities not to intimidate any member of their community whose decision runs counter to that of the majority of his community.  At the Friday’s meeting, consensus emerged that no conclusion should be made before listening to the IOM. 

Even after the IOM laid out its guarantees on Saturday, however, the dust was clearly not settled.

Following the IOM’s meeting, various groups sprang up outside the St. Luke Church, raising the specter of doubt about so many issues, regardless of whether the questions were satisfactorily addressed by Smith or not.

The most recurring questions were whether it was necessary to reach the 20,000 voter mark for the votes to be valid—the number required by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission Law for the determination of centers—and whether a registered voter (who, for reasons beyond his/her control) doesn’t vote on January 9, 2011, will have their vote automatically counted as a ‘unity vote.’

The answers to all these, Smith said, were a resounding ‘no.’ However, the IOM’s  OCRV Coordinator for Canada added that 60 per cent of the registered voters must cast their votes in the referendum in order for the votes to be tallied.

Asked how IOM would guard against non-Sudanese (who allegedly migrated to Canada as ‘Southern Sudanese,’ presumably bearing southern Sudanese names) voting in the referendum, Smith said the organization had 10 vacancies open for the positions of identifiers for the southern Sudanese community to fill.

Their roles would be to detect any suspicious individual who turns up to register ostensibly as a member of one of the southern Sudanese tribes. It would also be the identifiers’ prerogative to recommend whom the community recognizes as one of its own and whom it doesn’t, particularly for those southerners without proper identifications, he explained.

Challenges

Regardless of the credibility of the IOM, which some members still didn’t recognize a day after the comprehensive briefing in Calgary, there will be countless logistical nightmares. For instance, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskachewan and Regina, the main cities in Western Canada where southern Sudanese reside, are required to transport themselves for hundreds of miles to the only center in Calgary to register first (November 15 – December 1), and then come back on January 9 – January 15 2011, to cast their votes on their own dime.

In addition, many have noted the severity of Canadian winters, of which January is often the peak as a defining factor in their opposition to the vote. The same concern is also true for Toronto, which will serve as the only center in the East for its surrounding cities like Windsor, London, and Kitchener etc.  The IOM said it doesn’t have the manpower to extend voting and registration centers to all the cities where the voters are, nor the resources to transport and host potential voters.

On the question of whether the people of Abyei will vote alongside the people of southern Sudan in the diaspora, Smith said he didn’t have an answer. Nevertheless, the Abyei Referendum Commission has not been set up, and the Abyei issue is the subject of a series of failed and ongoing negotiations in Addis Ababa between Khartoum and Juba over its status.

Finally, as our news organization has observed, the mishandling of this issue from the outset by concerned authorities has planted seeds of discord between tribes. Although the votes may ultimately go ahead, there is still a feeling in some communities that those who will be strolling to the voting booths as well as those who would be seeking IOM jobs will bear the sole responsibility of ‘selling the south out’ if the outcome of the vote is ‘unity.’

Meanwhile, the GoSS’s message about respecting individual choices seems not to be getting through the blizzard of misinformation, some of which is filtering in from Southern Sudan Television.

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