The census was set to start on 15 April and be done in two weeks, but in a public announcement made a day before the president of the government of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir said that he was postponing it on the grounds that the right conditions for it to take place did not obtain and that census forms did not have elements deemed essential by Southern Sudan and over which no agreement with the central authorities had been reached.
These conditions included the failure to repatriate all southerners (with many stuck in the north or abroad) to their place of origin, insecurity in some areas because of the presence of armed groups or militias, and the lack of transportation and funds for census workers. Drawing the border between North and South was also seen as a problem. Moreover, census forms failed to ask people for their religious or tribal affiliation, something seen as important because it could show that northern Sudan was not exclusively Arab Muslim and that in the south Christians were not just a minority. Tribal affiliation was also important because it will determine the language used in schools and in other domains.
After a series of negotiations a compromise was reached, albeit one rejected by some as a sham. It included a new starting date, 22 April in lieu of 15 April; questions about religious and tribal were included in the questionnaire; and internal refugees would vote in their current place of residence but would also declare their religion and tribe.
Now that the census is done and over, it is difficult to have a general view of the situation for many doubts remain in the minds of people.
My impression is that in some southern areas many people are sceptical about the promises made. In such places some groups have boycotted the census, whilst others have complained that there were not enough forms to register everyone. In other areas there was not enough security and in certain southern districts unauthorised observers sent by northern authorities showed up during the census.
In El Obeid, for example, Catholic students from a local university wrote a letter to the authorities complaining that in their city there were no Christian census workers and that registration was done with a pencil and not a pen. As consequence of this complaint, Fr Hailu Abraham, a Combonian missionary, was expelled accused for his involvement in writing the letter, which for some was tantamount to engaging in politics and which foreigners are not allowed to do. After two days in police detention he was ordered to leave El Obeid and never set foot there again.
It must be said though, that preparations for the census were well done. In the week from 10 to 17 April, I was in Raga and I saw with my own eyes how well the census was organised, at least in that place. After taking part in a workshop everyone received the necessary material to do their job, and then travelled to their assigned area, some by bicycle, others by motorcycle, some hitching a ride.
I spoke with many people involved in the census process and had the impression that they knew exactly what they were supposed to do.
The census is an important milestone ahead of next year's general elections and the scheduled 2011 referendum which should decide once and for whether the south will remain united with the North or go on its own.
It is important to point out that people and the authorities are conscious of the fact that decisions cannot me made over the heads of people without them having a say.
Hopefully, census results will not be manipulated and lead instead to better sharing of services. Similarly, in places where the census did not take place because of inauspicious conditions, we might hope that Sudanese and international authorities might work with greater conviction to create the right conditions.