The United Nations peacekeeping mission set up after the end of the north-south civil war has opened its first field office for the referendum to be held next January on whether the south should secede from the rest of the country.
The Mundri West county referendum base, which was inaugurated on Wednesday in Western Equatoria state, will be one of 79 across southern Sudan that will serve as centres for UN staff assisting with the conduct of the referendum.
Voters are expected to go to the polls on 9 January next year to decide to secede or stay part of Sudan, while a simultaneous referendum in Abyei will determine whether that area belongs to the north or the south.
The referenda are being held under the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war, and the UN mission – known as UNMIS – is tasked with providing both training and technical and logistical support for the vote.
David Gressly, the UNMIS Regional Coordinator for Southern Sudan, said mission staff will be involved in procuring and distributing referenda materials, while UN police will train local law enforcement personnel on security.
He told the UN News Centre that the mission was using green-field sites to build the centres because of the lack of infrastructure in much of southern Sudan. The Mundri West base consists of six tents that house the offices and sleeping quarters for UN staff.
“The base gives us an added advantage as it provides a symbolic presence for the referendum,” Mr. Gressly said. “It sends a signal to the local community that the referendum is real, that it is really going to happen. That’s very important at this time.”
Many of the bases are in remote locations that are accessible only by helicopter because of the poor state of the roads, the rainy season and ongoing insecurity. UNMIS currently has 16 helicopters available for use and has asked for another eight to help with the distribution of referenda materials.
Mr. Gressly said he was confident that UNMIS will be able to build all the centres in time and carry out its support role, noting that the mission helped with the staging of this year’s national elections in Sudan in April.