Category Archives: Referendum

The history behind political change and the attraction of ‘turning points’

The Libya and Bahrain protests are so distressing it’s hard to read other news, but I need to sort through my electronic piles of stories on Sudan.  However, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa (as well as one of my friends’ new PhD proposal) is making me think about the attractiveness of tipping points in history.

There’s a really attractive oversimplifying element in discrete political events, as shown with the coverage of Sudan (in its North-South, Arab-black, Muslim-Christian tautology), Tunisia and Egypt, and now particularly Bahrain, with its Shia-Sunni divide.  It’s also fun to compare.  As well as comparisons and calls for ‘copy-cat’ referendums in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Balochistan (pinpoint that on a map, my friends), Kurdistan, Georgia and even Quebec, there are also more historical comparisons.

Douglas Johnson, at the Royal Africa Society’s seminar on the referendum on 4 February, used Somaliland’s UDI as a ‘lesson’ to the South about the importance of international recognition and the referendum route.  In comparison, Heather Sharkey, in talking about how some have seen South Sudan’s independence as a late-comer to the 1950s and 60s independence parties, looks at the turning point of Congolese independence and the CIA assassination of Lumumba in 1961 as an example of what can go wrong almost immediately following self-determination, particularly with international collusion and pressure.  Eritrea and Katanga have come up as comparisons in other seminars.

Turning points allow for teleological absolutism: Sharkey points out the tendency of news reports on the South to see secession as inevitable, even geographically obvious.  But seeing political events as discrete moments also lends itself to counterfactual history, as Sharkey says historians will focus on whether the referendum, and secession, was avoidable.

It’s too easy to see political events, particularly elections, as self-contained units – the announcement, the campaigning, the voting, the result.  Maybe this is why there’s been so much focus on the individual deaths that were ‘sparks’ for the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, and why so many political (and not so informed) commentators have been left saying how sudden and unexpected these events were, or being reductionist as to the causes.  It’s far too difficult to explain the history of Libya, say, and the causes and outcomes – political and psychological – of previous attempts at political unrest and change; it’s also very hard to express in a news-worthy fashion the real emotional frustrations that lead people to take on intelligence services, police and armies in this way.

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Alternative narratives of corruption and political pressure in the South Sudan referendum: a rebalancing

I’m quite frustrated with this piece by Jort Hemmer at the SSRC blog today.  The article is, to me, an oversimplification, when I think it could be trying to say something more balanced and really pertinent.

Hemmer contrasts the general success of the referendum with an ‘alternative narrative’ of rigging, intimidation and, in his quote from Mareike Schomerus, an “environment of fear” surrounding the mobilisation of the “yes” vote.

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Filed under Politics, Referendum, Sudan

Women in referendum stories

I’m saving a lot of referendum news articles under the title “referendum stories”.  If I were in South Sudan now, I probably wouldn’t leave the voting queues for all the lovely narrative arcs: apparently there are impromptu speech-givings, but I also imagine that a lot of people are situating themselves in a historical event, talking about the story of their lives in terms of change, liberation and closure.  The international media are loving them too, and I’m getting a lot of the proceeds.

One problem I know I’ve discussed and thought about before is how to find women’s accounts.  Other than men being frequently louder and more confident in their speaking, social position and English skills in giving information, there are many problems in trying to interview women.

A quick and entirely unscientific survey of the 107 news reports called “stories” I’ve collected from 3-12 January backs up this problem of a bias towards men’s personal narratives.  Not counting elected party leaders or SSRC/IOM voting officials, there are 49 men named and quoted individually; in US reports alone, there are 16 “Lost Boys” giving their accounts and feelings.  In contrast, 11 women are quoted in reports from South Sudan.  An additional 7 women are quoted in reports from the US, usually with far longer quotes.  There are also two “Lost Girls” giving their stories – with particularly interesting and emotional accounts of being actually in the polling booth.

That’s 65 men versus 20 women; a one in three, reflecting the dominance of men in community groups, how journalists find it easier to approach men for fear of cultural embarrassments, the usually male interpreters who know the men in the queue, the registration bias towards men that’s been frequently reported – with no actual statistics available as far as I can tell yet (please let me know if you have some!) – and the “Lost Boys” preoccupation in the American press.  Ultimately it’s about the English language, too – women were far more likely to be quoted in US articles alongside men, whereas writing on Southern Sudan threw up a few examples where a journalist had clearly set out to talk to women, such as Rebecca Hamilton’s interview with four women in a ‘vulnerable people’ queue in Bentiu.

I’m not drawing out any points – as the long sentence above shows, there are plenty of reasons for this – other than it’s something I continue to be aware of, and want to be constantly aware of.  It’s too easy to be so excited by the fantastic information you’re getting from interviews and forget the longer, slower process of talking to women and gaining the same confidences – and confident stories – as with men.  I’ll probably come back to this again and again (partly because the academic and NGO research work already done on my particular area of interest, the Southern population in Khartoum, is often substantially focused on abuses perpetrated against women), but I thought it worth writing, as it’s a notable phenomenon in the reporting of “stories” at the moment.  I’m going to wait for voting to close, and for “referendum stories” to dry up slightly, before starting to think about the stories themselves.

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Filed under Procrastination, Referendum, Sudan, Women

The referendum

The clock is literally ticking in Juba in the run-up to the Southern Sudan referendum on secession.

It’s very hard not to be quite tense this weekend over the conduct of the referendum (I even managed to have a stress dream last night about voting).  My friend Zoe has written on the longevity of the idea of secession – as a potential political reality or pragmatic bargaining chip since the 70s.  A lot of the media, taking opinions from registering Southern Sudanese, are noting the proliferation of comments about this ‘historical moment’.  Potentially some of the tension I’m feeling is because this particular historical moment has been so long used as a potential threat or reward, but not thought about as a practical reality for particularly long?

I am not feeling tense about the actual outcome of the referendum, or that events will turn violent over the weekend and war will resume – most credible commentators don’t believe this will happen, and I agree.  I’m far more concerned over the 6-month transition period – whether the issues that have been put off will be resolved, how the Abyei situation will play out, and even whether some people will become impatient and frustrated when a ‘New Sudan’ (or whatever it’ll be called – I’m currently in favour of Equatoria) fails to emerge at the end of six months.

Either way, the more I read about people celebrating the vote, the more I feel that I should put aside my tensions for Sunday, at least.  The tensions and fear are – as far as I can tell from the reporting – mostly from people in the North, fearing reprisals after a result of secession.  Most people in the South and elsewhere are excited, including in London.

Photo credit to New Sudan Vision.

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Inflammatory uncertainty: the rumour mill and reality

Nobody can give any definite idea of what will happen after the vote.  The more I look for commentary from what I think of as solid political or academic sources, the more I wonder how large the difference really is at the moment between considered opinion and speculative rumours.

This sounds obvious, but it’s rare that there’s such a historical turning point that you really feel that there’s no clear idea of what will happen.  This is definitely reflected in the rumours that I’ve heard and read in circulation.

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