THE BLOG
01/09/2011 10:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Americans: Support Today's Referendum - and Democracy - in South Sudan

Today, Sunday January 9th, the people of Southern Sudan will have the chance to vote for independence. Americans of all persuasions should support the democratic process of this long-anticipated vote.

The product of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Sudan's mostly Muslim North and its mostly Christian South, the election will provide the Southern Sudanese - a population estimated at between 10 and 13 million people, Christians and animists, or practitioners of native religions - the opportunity to choose to remain part of a unified Sudan or to break away and become an independent nation.

Unity may sound nice in theory. But for the Southern Sudanese, whose suffering was dramatically illustrated for Western audiences in a 2004 documentary about the "Lost Boys of Sudan," the reality of life under a Muslim extremist government based in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, has all too often meant forced conversions, enslavement, and death. Between 1983 and 2005, over 2 million Southern Sudanese were killed through slaughter and starvation.

Omar al Bashir, president of Sudan, has spoken nicely in recent days about respecting the outcome of the vote. But his history of reportedly unleashing janjaweed militias on ethnic African villages and his indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes against fellow Muslims in Darfur, combined with his recent statement threatening imposition of Sharia Law in the North if the South breaks away, are troubling.

Outstanding issues yet to be resolved between North and South include citizenship rights, borders, and the division of valuable water and oil resources - the latter of which are disproportionately concentrated in the South.

Yet despite these potential flashpoints and the threat of possible violence in the months following the vote, most Southern Sudanese in the U.S. say their choice in January 9th's vote is crystal clear.

"Yes, one hundred percent. If Sharia Law is the law of the nation, how can you tell me I have a place?" says Simon Deng, a Sudanese-American human rights activist whose 300-mile "Freedom Walk" to raise awareness about the slaughter of Darfuri Muslims gained him an audience with former President George W. Bush, who brought about the CPA. "I'll speak for myself and my family ...We want freedom now."

Thousands of Southern Sudanese residing in the U.S. have registered to vote in eight U.S. cities - Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, Boston, Washington D.C., Phoenix, Omaha, and Seattle. Close to 4 million Southern Sudanese have registered in all - many of them traversing long distances overland on foot in Sudan and coming long distances by bus, automobile and foot to do so in the Diaspora. Hundreds of thousands lined up before dawn at voting places throughout South Sudan.

Voting will take place over the course of a week and tallying the vote will take several weeks. Results are due before February 15th.

Even in the best case scenario, Sudan's democracy will take time to build. Many Southern Sudanese are illiterate. After decades of neglect, the South lacks basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Its people will need assistance from the international community to begin the strenuous process of building a democratic nation. But in the words of Winston Churchill, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried."

Should its people choose independence, South Sudan will become the world's newest nation, born by popular will in a region where democracy is all too rare. Americans should extend a hand of welcome and support to a people with the courage to fight for their survival and their liberty.