British radio stations to air ads for Sudan referendum

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British listeners could soon be hearing radio adverts for a Sudanese referendum on independence after a group responsible for publicising the vote began bidding for airtime on British commercial stations.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is trying to inform Britain's sizeable Sudanese diaspora about a referendum on their homeland's independence from the rest of the war-torn country, due to be held in January next year.

Office for National Statistics figures show that around 9,000 Sudanese currently live in Britain – believed to be the largest population in Western Europe. The South Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) hopes to reach as many of southern Sudanese included in that number as possible. It also plans to use London as a registration and voting centre for the whole continent.

"Britain is a relatively small country and people travel to London for family events and to work, so it should be possible for them to make the journey for something as important as a referendum on their homeland's independence," said George Maker Benjamin, a spokesman for the SSRC.

He added: "It is about reaching as many people as possible and giving them the opportunity to exercise their right to voice their opinion and determine the future of their own country."

Global Radio, which owns Choice and Capital FM and LBC, is understood to be considering airing the announcements on some of its stations. The group also owns the stations Galaxy, Classic FM and Heart. The charges 30-second slots vary from station to station, but are thought to range from around £2,000 to £15,000.

Other than the London centre, located in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, three Sudanese voter registration centres have been set up in the United States and others have been established in Canada, Australia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Egypt – countries chosen on the basis of the size of their respective South Sudanese populations.

Mr Maker Benjamin said that, while registration for the vote is "going well in the south" of Sudan, it has been more difficult in the north, where there are thought to be around two million South Sudanese who fled the fighting which has blighted the country for around 25 years. However, he said that the process in the North was being made possible by visits to the vast refugee camps in and around the capital Khartoum by Commission delegates.

"We found that turnout was low and that it was down, in part, to levels of illiteracy among the population. So we hired cars and strapped loudspeakers to them and got in touch with local broadcasters and started to spread the message," he said.

While threats of violent reprisals against anyone within Sudan who votes have already been reported, Mr Maker Benjamin insisted that South Sudanese people living in Britain and other countries should have no such fears.

The vote, which has already been delayed three times, is due to take place on 9 January and requires at least a 60 per cent turnout to be considered valid. A simple majority in favour of independence would see it adopted immediately.

A simultaneous referendum will also be held in the Abyei area of the country, the bridge between Northern and Southern Sudan, on whether it should become part of any independent state in the South.

Voter registration, which is restricted to those born in South Sudan, began on Monday and is scheduled to run until 1 December.

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague told a meeting of the UN security council in New York that the referendum was a "defining moment for Sudan and its people. It is a period of great risk, and therefore a situation that the security council cannot ignore."

A spokesman for the IOM yesterday confirmed that it had been asked by the Commission to organise and publicise the referendum outside of Sudan.