What’s this census all about, eh?

In certain tribal villages in South Sudan, mothers with large families have somehow got wind that a census is going to take place. Not that they really know what a census is. Rather, they have just about understood, listening to all the rhetoric, that someone wants to come and count their children. They don’t really know why, but they do know that, unless they take steps to hide their children, this census thing is going to put an evil curse on them.

In Darfur, images of angry demonstrators in IDP camps, brandishing banners viciously: no one is going to count us! They don’t know why they object so strongly to this census thing, but they do know one thing: that it’s all to do with politics (again), and that after they have been counted they are bound to be much worse off.

The educated ‘elite’ in the north and the south are planning to complete the census form with black pens. In remote regions of Darfur and south Sudan, they are readying the ink wells, where bemused villagers are going to be sticking thumbs before applying said digit to a dainty bit of white paper. They’re certainly going to remember the hilarity of sticking a thumb in a pot of ink, but they’re not really going to grasp why.

So what’s all this census thing about then? Does it matter and, if so, why? And why does it keep getting delayed? (It was supposed to take place on April 15, but has now been postponed to April 22 – see my article for why?)

When people talk about the census, they link it to the election due to take place in 2009 (insh’allah) and the referendum in 2011. But an interesting background briefing I had with a couple of Western diplomats say that both of these things can happen, more or less fairly, without the census. And I agreed. True, there would be a little more work involved, but in all fairness it’s about time that the UN staff recovered from their hangovers here long enough to actually do some work.

No, the true importance of the census lies in working out what money should go where: the so-called wealth sharing protocols of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Once the population is more-or-less worked out, the South knows how much oil revenue it should be getting, and the government can stop duping everyone (or the other way around).

And this is why there has been such a problem actually getting the census to take place. Both sides want to make sure that, when the count actually takes place, they are in the best positions. The latest complaint by the south is that not enough refugees have made it back home to give them a fair result. The more returning refugees that are south of the border come C-Day, the greater the population of the south and the more power and money they can claim from Khartoum.

Perhaps the most obvious example of all this politicking is poor Abeyi, a disputed region of South Kordofan where most of the country’s oil is. Edward Lino, a member of the SPLM, has just been appointed governor of the region – and has set about pitting the Ngok Dink against the Masseriya Arabs, in order to disrupt things in the region and move southerners into key areas. Meanwhile, the government stands accused, by those honest people at Human Rights Watch, of launching deliberate attacks in certain areas to dissuade refugees in the north from returning to the region. All this is in a confidential UN report, so it must be true.

Not that any of it really matters to the bemused women in Darfur with the blue, inky thumb. She’ll only remember C-Day for its strangeness. Not for the power it has to change the shape of Sudan; if only the two sides could be brave enough to let it get started.

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