The atmosphere was filled with a euphoric cacophony. African hip-hop played from loudspeakers; women ululated; tribes danced and sang to the beat of drums. Actor George Clooney appeared. Southern politicians, meanwhile, strode confidently from interview to interview, delivering the same lines to the horde of satisfied press. "A historic day …," they said, "… no to war and yes to peace …" "… free, fair, transparent governance …"
Finally Ladu approached the white tent bunted with sheets and ribbons. At one table, his voter registration card was hole-punched; at another, he was given a ballot and thorough instructions -- a thumbprint, next to the picture of clasped hands for unity with Northern Sudan or next to the single hand for independence.
He ducked his head into a booth and emerged, placed his ballot into a box and a poll worker dipped his index finger into a bottle of blue ink. Joseph emerged from the tent smiling broadly, his vote simultaneously momentous and inconsequential. "Now we are independent!" he exclaimed.
Not quite. It will take six months until this week's referendum, a critical component of the 2005 peace deal that ended nearly five decades of brutal war with the North, takes effect. The conflict, which claimed an estimated 2 million lives, witnessed some of Africa's most barbaric acts -- including slave raids, mutilation and rape -- and stole childhood and livelihoods from generations of Sudanese.
On paper, at least, the new South stands in good stead. It enjoys the full-throated backing of most in the international community, including the United States, which has promised instant recognition and assistance. The South also holds most of Sudan's discovered oil, worth billions of dollars annually in revenue.
Among Southerners, then, hopes are running high. "I am an old man now; I grew up in the war," says Laku Ladu Yenkeji. "We have been looking to be independent since 1947. [The North] has been taking us, killing us, stealing our resources for a lifetime. We want to be independent so we can see to our own resources, our own administration, our own selves. We are ready."
It's a confidence many outside of the South don't share. When the jubilation ends, serious questions will remain about the South's viability as a new state. After all, Africa has witnessed the birth of many nations that failed to live up to expectations -- Eritrea, Zambia, Zimbabwe; the list is long. The hope is that South Sudan can prove this continent's history and skeptics wrong.
Step One will be to translate independence into unity. Southern Sudan -- a collection of 10 states sprawled across a crushingly underdeveloped region the size of Texas -- is populated with hundreds of tribes and clans, all divided by self-interest and parochialism. As much as the civil war pitted the non-Muslim South against the Islamic northern government, for example, the period was also marked by fierce infighting between the tribes. Creating a pluralistic, modern society from these narrow traditions will not be easy.
Just how difficult it will be to reign in these sheiks and petty warlords is evidenced by the rebellion of George Athor, a former lieutenant general in the South's military. Last April, Athor took up arms when the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the dominant Sudan People's Liberation Army, refused to back him in his bid for governor of Jonglei State, South Sudan's largest.
The Southern government reached a cease-fire with Athor in early January but not before his militia waged a campaign of hit-and-run attacks against government posts -- the most recent just last month, when 20 soldiers were killed.
It will take a big personality with a mind toward political integration to manage the South's disparate interests. The current president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, has little of the charisma of the former leader of the SPLA, John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash shortly after the peace deal was inked. But Kiir and his SPLM/A control nearly all aspects of the political process and have made clear that pluralism can wait.
Independence will also bring the expectation of accountability, for which the South is woefully unprepared.
In the last five years, billions of dollars from the oil bonanza have been misappropriated. Some roads and schools have been built but they are less conspicuous than the flash cars and mansions of government and military officials. (At one point an accountant was assigned to keep track of where the money had gone; the Southern government sacked him within a month.)
Southerners -- and international donors -- have so far excused these excesses but for how much longer?
And over it all hangs the threat of more war with the North. Despite the coalition government established by the 2005 peace deal, the North-South relationship has been fragile. Over the last five years, the South has prepared for the resumption of conflict many thought would come with independence, including large weapons purchases and laying fresh mines across its border. Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, sought to allay those fears with a visit to the South last week in which he pledged his government's goodwill and support for the future. But among Southerners, doubts remain.
"Definitely the North will be a problem," says one Southern official, echoing the thoughts of many. "Their president showed a good gesture when he came here but these were only words, not actions."
Widespread sentiment aside, it seems unlikely that the North would unilaterally resume hostilities. Khartoum's ruling elite seem reconciled to having lost the South and both sides' dependence on each other to exploit Sudan's oil provides a powerful incentive for peace.
For its part, Washington has vaguely promised to reward Khartoum for good behavior. The first step likely would be Sudan's removal from the State Sponsors of Terror List, an outdated designation from the mid-1990s when the government played host to Osama bin Laden. Full diplomatic relations and the removal of economic sanctions may follow. For a country that relies on oil, welcoming Sudan into the greenback community is a powerful incentive.
But there are flash points, notably the disputed territory of Abyei, an oil-rich area claimed by both North and South. Long-simmering tensions between Arab and African tribes there have boiled over into armed conflict with increasing frequency -- indeed, on Sunday, the first day of the Southern referendum, a clash resulted in 10 deaths and a flurry of diplomacy to quell fears of war -- and in Sudan, local tribal conflicts can quickly conflagrate into large wars.
For now, however, it is enough for many Southerners that they will soon realize their own nation. "No family has not lost a relative during my lifetime," says Gabriel, a Southerner from the Equatorian tribe north of Juba. "We have lost a lot in this war. There will be disadvantages, and the biggest one will be tribalism. But we are no longer slaves to others."