Oliver Fischer, a young Census Bureau demographer, landed two unusual assignments that contributed to U.S. policy aimed at bringing about a fair and peaceful vote for Southern Sudan to declare its independence from the northern part of the country.
Starting in 2006 and continuing through the early part of 2011, Fischer had two roles—that of a census expert helping to set the stage for an accurate vote count, and later as a member of the State Department’s Civilian Response Corps working in extremely dangerous parts of Southern Sudan to provide American diplomats with information in the run up to the referendum.
As a Census Bureau employee, Fischer initially traveled to Sudan on numerous occasions to help draft and test census questionnaires, and to provide technical assistance to help Southern Sudan conduct a population count that would define how wealth and political power would be apportioned between the regions in the new country and to establish how many people were eligible to cast ballots.
“This was vital to the success of the referendum. If the country could not determine how many voters it had, it could not determine what percentage supported breaking off to become a separate country,” said Ambassador Robert Loftis, the acting coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization at the State Department.
After decades of violent civil war between the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement based in the southern half of the country, a peace accord was formally reached in 2005. Roughly two million people died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict, and some four million people in Southern Sudan were displaced during the war.
The agreement laid a framework for Southern Sudan to hold a referendum for succession and self-governance, a vote that peacefully took place in January 2011 amid mounting U.S. and international concerns that it might lead to bloodshed. Fischer was certified as a diplomatic observer and worked with international organizations during the voting to identify and help resolve voter registration problems.
In the months leading up to the referendum, Fischer’s primary responsibility shifted from census work to assisting the State Department, which dispatched him to remote and violent areas of Southern Sudan as a Conflict Monitoring and Response Officer. His role was to establish relationships with local residents; provide U.S. diplomats with a better understanding of any potential instability that might impact the independence vote; and to serve as mediator of local disputes that might disrupt the election.
“I spent the majority of my time trying to understand the local conflict dynamics throughout the states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile,” said Fischer. “This involved working with a host of locals to prevent violence and monitor local disputes.” The state of Jonglei reported more violent deaths in 2009 than Darfur, the western part of Sudan that has been ravaged by murders, torture, destruction and rapes since 2003.
Fischer visited more than 35 villages, sending reports and cables about conditions on the ground, and trying to identify ways to prevent violence. As a result, the 31-year-old found himself in the midst of some hair-raising situations, including resolving a dispute between two rival clans over cattle grazing and water rights that threatened to become violent.
“He got the leaders of the two groups together and mediated and found an accommodation,” said Loftis. “Oliver is one of the most skilled, natural diplomats that I have met.”
Jason Ladnier, a State Department employee who worked with Fischer, said his colleague lived in “an extremely austere environment around very rough and dangerous circumstances” to help “promote a peaceful transition in the region.”
Ladnier said Fischer displayed an uncanny ability to “build trust with the locals.”
“The governor and the entire cabinet of Jonglei knew him and treated him like a friend and partner,” said Ladnier.
Fischer, who traveled in small planes, boats and helicopters, said he was often the first person from the West that had been in contact with the people in many of the locations, a development that worked in his favor.
“The locals really viewed a visit to their turf as a sign of both respect and commitment,” said Fischer. “It enabled me to create lasting relationships.”
“The South Sudanese people have been at war for years and they simply wanted rights and access to true democracy, including a say in their government,” he said.
Fischer encountered a number of obstacles, including developing appendicitis. He was medically evacuated to Kenya to undergo surgery, and returned to the field seven days later.
For Fischer, the experience was both a challenge and an opportunity to make a contribution to “the greater good, service to others and country.”
“I’m a public servant because I’m committed to attempting to tackle larger societal problems,” said Fischer.