An unremarkable northeast Dallas office park, just outside the 635 Loop, is one of five spots across the United States where Southern Sudanese emigres can register to vote for their homeland's independence.
The referendum on independence is a condition of the peace agreement that ended Sudan's 20-year civil war in 2005, and the United States is one of eight countries outside Sudan where Southern Sudanese-born people, and their children, can cast a vote from January 9 to 15 next year.
Tuesday afternoon, it was slow going at the Dallas registration office, where a roomful of election workers in bright yellow vests sat behind folding tables killing time, waiting for the next hopeful voter to turn up. Lawrence Mogga, the head of the Dallas election center, told me they've been averaging 60 new registrations over the first week or so, but it's dropped off to about half that lately. They'll get a few hundred each day on the weekends, though, as busloads from Houston or Austin, or even as far away as Kansas, empty into their office to sign up. (Next month, they'll all have to make the long trip again to cast their votes.)
"People are excited ... They've been expecting it for a long time," Mogga says. The process has been held up by years of disputes over how the decision should be made -- as it stands now, a simple majority will be enough for independence, if at least 60 percent of the registered voters weigh in. "It's better late than nothing."
"Most of them prefer to have their own state, that's what we sense," says Ater Malekjob, an assistant at the election center.
Mogga and Malekjob both left for the U.S. in the mid-'90s, in the thick of Sudan's second civil war. They say many of the 4,000 or so Southern Sudanese in Dallas would probably move back if it wins its independence -- though, even with a clear majority of the vote, there's no guarantee it'll happen smoothly. While there's a low-key atmosphere around the U.S. voting places, the mood back in Sudan is far more charged.
Sudan is Africa's largest country, home to an uneasy mix of Arabs in the north and black Africans in the south, which has played out in a pair of lengthy civil wars and guerilla conflicts like the one in Darfur (the country's western region). At the end of the last civil war, the Arab-friendly central government made Southern Sudan an autonomous region, but altogether letting go of the south -- and with it, 85 percent of Sudan's oil reserves -- could be a harder sell. The U.S. has been making offers to encourage the Sudanese government to let the south go quietly if the voters go for independence.
The referendum's being run by the International Organization for Migration, and while there's still of concern about violence that could scare voters away from polling places in Southern Sudan, Malekjob says there hasn't been any kind of protesting outside the Dallas office. Still, he says, they've got a Dallas Police officer parked outside to monitor the office just in case.
"The people here are confident that the voting system will be fair and credible" here in Dallas, Mogga says -- one of the reasons he and Malekjob said it was important to them to work on the election. "I wanted to make sure this thing goes transparently," Malekjob says. Mogga agrees, and says there's an even more basic reason he had for signing up: "I want to be part of history."
To register for the vote, people must show proof of Southern Sudanese citizenship, like a passport or another official ID card -- or pass muster with one of a handful of community leaders who'll ask specific questions about their tribe and family back in Sudan. "The easy ones are the ones that have got a mark," Malekjob says, referring to the forehead scars that make some tribes quick to identify.
Registration closes a week from today here and other cities chosen by organizers for their concentration of Southern Sudanese: Seattle, Nashville, Chicago and Boston. Others registered during an earlier window in suburban Phoenix, Omaha and Alexandria, Virginia.
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