JUBA // This dusty outpost along the Nile erupted in jubilation yesterday, as voters celebrated the likely birth date of the world's newest nation. Singing, drumming and ululations pierced the air in polling centres around the city on the first of seven days of voting to determine whether Southern Sudan will declare independence.
Such was the excitement that people queued for hours before polling began at 8am.
"It is history in the making," said Victoria Athou. "One can wait a whole day as long as one is going to vote for freedom."
It is almost universally expected that the mainly Christian and animist south will choose secession from the Muslim north, which has been accused of deliberately withholding resources from this vast, underdeveloped swath of sub-Saharan Africa.
The referendum comes as a result of a peace agreement signed on January 9, 2005, ending a war that lasted almost half a century. In the second phase alone, sparked by Khartoum's attempt to impose Sharia law throughout the entire country in 1983, an estimated two million people were killed.
Jacob Aleer Deng, who joined the rebel Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) at age 17, said the referendum proved war was not waged in vain.
"I was fighting for what happened today, to liberate my country," he said minutes after casting his ballot. "Now I've succeeded."
The wartime experiences of many no doubt contributed to yesterday's emotionally charged atmosphere.
Reuben Taban Gaithony began chanting independence slogans, and was quickly joined by voters waiting in line with him. He said he was a former SPLA captain who was captured by the northern army and tortured before he managed to escape.
"I had internal injuries," recalled Mr Gaithony. "They beat me with sticks and broke one rib."
Many voters said they hoped independence brought not only peace, but also economic development and other opportunities.
"I want my children to live in a free country with education and healthy living," said Margaret Alela, a mother of five. "I hope that the new government will deliver these things."
The government of a newly independent Southern Sudan would have a hard time meeting such expectations quickly. A document distributed by the United Nations, entitled "Scary Statistics", reveals some of the challenges: 85 per cent of the region's adults are illiterate, pregnancy kills one of every seven women carrying children, and half the population survives on less than US$1 (Dh3) a day.
The southern government is counting on plentiful oil reserves, which currently account for 98 per cent of its revenues, to deliver development. But oil is at the murky heart of one of the key challenges in the post-referendum period.
While most of Sudan's oil lies in the landlocked south, the pipeline to bring oil to export markets runs through the north. An independent south would have to negotiate carefully with Khartoum to share profits from oil equitably, as required by the 2005 peace agreement.
A report released January 6 by Global Witness, a natural resources watchdog group, accused Khartoum of under-reporting production, saying the country could be producing as much as 26 per cent more oil than the government admits. As a result, the group claimed, it is impossible to determine if oil profits are being shared fairly.
"A new oil deal between the north and south is critical to preventing a return to full-scale war," Global Witness warned.
The oil question is further complicated by the fact that much of the reserves are located on a frontier that has yet to be defined in many places.
Oil is not the only challenge to drawing a permanent border. Nomadic cattle herders are worried about losing grazing rights in an independent Southern Sudan, a situation that threatens to spark a war in the Abyei region. The Messiria, a cattle-herding tribe that identifies with the north, have clashed with the Dinka, who consider themselves southerners. Speaking in Juba on Saturday, US Senator John Kerry said the status of Abyei was one of the most important issues to be resolved if Southern Sudan chooses independence.
The actor George Clooney, who has taken up the Southern Sudanese cause as a personal crusade, visited Abyei days ago and said the mood was significantly different than that of Juba.
"They feel a bit left out; they're a little anxious," he told reporters at a polling station yesterday morning. "You have to consider Abyei as a key piece to moving forward."
But Mr Clooney and others have mentioned the great strides made in recent months by both the northern and southern governments to work towards a peaceful referendum.
Even the chair of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, Justice Chan Reec Madut, said yesterday he was surprised that the referendum was actually happening.
"We are at that stage today, though it was doubted by a number of people including myself," he said.
Mr Madut said the overwhelming enthusiasm on display in the southern capital was matched in villages and towns throughout the south: "The turnout was equally emotional, the same as it was this morning in Juba."