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Southern tension in the Diaspora? Not so much.

10 January 2011

I found a recent article in the Financial Times (HT: Texas in Africa) surprising. In it, Katrina Manson writing from Juba claimed there was an informal boycott of South Sudanese in voting abroad during the 2011 referendum. She quotes an unnamed official at the International Organization for Migration:

“There’s been a huge boycott of the referendum, and our staff have been harassed, intimidated and beaten up by local members of the Southern Sudanese community.”

I was surprised that there would be any elements of the Southern Sudanese diaspora that would boycott the election (though I suspect there were probably a few that abstained — which I see as distinct from boycotting). If we just stop to think, we might expect the diaspora to have strong preferences for secession, if we take their departure from Sudan as evidence that they didn’t think the North was governing them as they thought it should. I’m not trying to claim that they might be more likely than their local equivalents to register and vote in the election, but I have little reason not to expect this population to be similarly likely to participate in the referendum.

In my observation of the Sudanese community in Dallas (both at a community event the day before the referendum and as an observer at the polling location on Days 1 and 2 of voting), I grew more skeptical of Manson’s article. The voters that turned out in Dallas were from across the economic spectrum and from a variety of ethnic groups, requiring different members of the polling staff to provide translations of voting instructions.

I asked different members of the Sudanese community and staff involved with the election whether there were any reports of harassment, intimidation, or violence against poll workers — and their response was unanimous in saying so such incidents occurred in Dallas or anywhere in the US that they had heard o. Two members of the referendum staff said that, if anything, there were a handful in the Sudanese community that were disappointed to have not been hired to staff the polling location in Dallas. Even in these cases, there was no intimidation or harassment, only discussions between those selected to work as staff and those not. A staff member said that she knew one person who hadn’t applied to work in the polls because he didn’t learn of the opportunity early enough and he was disappointed to miss out on the short-term employment opportunity. She said that she hadn’t seen him or his wife register to vote. This was the only incident that she said one might interpret as a “boycott.”

I’d also like to address Manson’s characterization of the rate of voter registration among eligible voters in the diaspora. On the surface, the disparity seems extraordinary:

“Only 64,000 of an estimated 500,000 voters in eight countries outside Sudan have been registered…”

I take issue with her statement that there are 500,000 S. Sudanese voters in these eight countries. Where did she get that number? Even if it’s correct, to what is she referring to: voters or population? The graphic in the article depicts these numbers as the “Sudanese population in each country” — which is distinct from the number of eligible voters. When I asked the Secretariat of the Dallas Sudanese Community Association why more people didn’t register, he said those who were missing couldn’t get the time away from work to make the trip. I said that there must have been many more than simply those who couldn’t get time off, citing the estimated population numbers of Sudanese in Dallas, and he said that most of the population of Sudanese in Dallas and generally in the abroad are children under 18 and thus ineligible to vote. He also said that there are many single-parent households (where the father is away) and that in these households, it would be a challenge to get to a polling location (remember, for both registration and voting) if you had small children and no spouse to look after them when you were at the referendum center.

Consider a US equivalent of Manson’s characterization: the estimated 2009 population in the US was 307,006,550, but only 206,072,000 (or 67%) were eligible to register as voters. Of that, 146,311,000 (or 71%) registered to vote. We have to also consider how much easier it is for Americans to register to vote compared to South Sudanese living in the abroad. In the US, there are only eight referendum centers. Though these are placed near large Sudanese populations, people still had to travel long distances. For example, the Dallas referendum center’s first female voter travelled 367 miles to vote.

All of this is to say: I think we need to stop forwarding and citing Manson’s alarmist article on “southern tension,” in which she characterized the registration process as “more fraught than those in Afghanistan and Iraq.” It just seems unsubstantiated.


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