When Sudanese Vice President Salva Kiir arrived at a polling station in South Sudan's capital city of Juba on Sunday morning, the bearded leader with a blue suit and a black cowboy hat experienced a first. It wasn't Kiir's first time to vote since he took office. Instead, he told a small crowd gathered around a plastic box collecting paper ballots, "I have never voted in my life."
That was a familiar theme across Sudan as the country began on Sunday its first multi-party election in 24 years. Though opposition parties and some election observers say the contests are already marred by fraud and inequity, scores of citizens streamed to polling places all over Sudan to participate in a process unimaginable to many in the war-ravaged country a few years ago.
And while expectations remain low that the elections will oust President Omar al-Bashir or bring any substantial change to the country's leadership, voters in South Sudan hope peaceful contests will provide a welcome precursor to what many in that region really want: a vote on Southern secession next year.
A North-South contrast offers a bleak window into the challenges facing the South as the region struggles to survive and looks toward independence. While deep poverty blankets the nation, Northern regions near the capital city of Khartoum are decidedly modern: Wide, paved roads and well-stocked markets abound in the capital.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles south, UN workers are calling the southeast corner of Sudan "the hungriest place on Earth." Excruciating photos from a local hospital recently showed malnourished children reduced to near-skeletal conditions. Aid agencies estimate that nearly 46 percent of children in the region are malnourished. "The hunger situation is really bad," said Goi Juoyul, the top official in the town of Akobo. "You'll have a cup of grain for a family of four or five for two days."
That's grievous for many reasons, including a mystifying one: The Sudanese government exports food to other nations. While its own citizens slowly starve, the Khartoum-based government led by Bashir exports wheat to Saudi Arabia and sorghum to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Many impoverished Sudanese subsist on the spongy bread they make from sorghum, but when the country exports it to the UAE, it's used to feed camels.
That dynamic infuriates many in the South who say Khartoum has not kept the conditions of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a 20-year civil war between the North and the South. The CPA called for Khartoum to share the vast revenues it reaps from oil pumped largely from the South. Many say that hasn't happened.
Those realities may lead to a new one next year: The CPA calls for Southerners to vote on a referendum on secession from Sudan in 2011. Bashir-who remains under indictment by the International Criminal Courts for war crimes in the western region of Darfur-says he opposes secession but would allow the region to decide. Many leaders are dubious about that promise but are determined to press toward a January vote. Salva Kiir-who serves as vice president of Sudan and president of the semi-autonomous government in the South-called this week's elections "the final lap of our journey toward the referendum."
Daniel Deng, the founder of a voter education group in the South called the Deng Foundation, agreed: "Let's get it out of the way and then move forward to the referendum."
Still, while many Southern eyes are trained on next year, Deng and others urged Sudanese citizens to absorb the import of this week's historic elections, too. "I will be voting for the first time, and I don't think my mom or dad has ever voted in their lives," said Deng. "We have lived in this country like aliens, forgotten. Now we have a chance to be a part of something."