WITH A terrible predictability, Sudan’s impending elections have degenerated into a chaotic mixture of massive fraud, vote-rigging, boycotts, intimidation, and abuses of national power by the ruling National Congress Party (known as the National Islamic Front during previous fraudulent elections).
Celebrated by various international actors as a move toward “democratization,” Sudan’s April 11-13 elections, however, have little chance of producing significant political change. With no serious competitors, Omar al-Bashir—indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity—will almost certainly retain the presidency he has held since the military coup he led in 1989.
Last week, the presidential candidate of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Yassir Arman, withdrew from the race because of widespread electoral fraud and the ongoing violence in Darfur. Northern opposition political parties—long disorganized and mainly irrelevant to the larger dynamics of power in Sudan—are also undecided about their role in the election and will either boycott them or participate in some truncated fashion.
The sectarian Umma Party, the most important of these parties, has declared that it will compete in the elections only if there is a delay until May and eight conditions are met—conditions so broad and sweeping as to constitute a virtually complete reformation of governance. The party’s demands are little more than posturing—a weak attempt to demonstrate the party’s own purportedly “democratic” credentials–and even if their partial boycott denies al-Bashir any claim to electoral legitimacy, it will still do nothing to reduce the stigma attached to his ICC indictment.
The SPLM also plans to boycott the presidential election and the elections to be held in Darfur, where any vote will be meaningless under present circumstances. But it will continue to field candidates for the National Assembly in order to prevent the NCP from attaining a “super majority” that would allow for unilateral changes to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement—an agreement that created both the Interim National Constitution and the electoral schedule.
Present national elections have already been delayed for two years, and the SPLM is afraid that if the NCP attains a super majority, the southern self-determination referendum that is scheduled for January 2011 will be delayed. The referendum—the key demand of the SPLM for many years—has secession as one of its options, and well over 90 percent of southern Sudanese are expected to vote for independence. As a result, all SPLM political calculations are informed by their desire to preserve the timely holding of the referendum.
Despite his claim to ensure electoral integrity, al-Bashir has also warned international election monitors, including the Carter Center, not to interfere in the upcoming elections. Suggesting a delay of a few days to deal with some of the massive logistical problems that alone have hopelessly compromised the election, the Carter Center and other monitoring countries have been told by al-Bashir that that they would be expelled for such suggestions. “If they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes and throw them out.”
The U.S. special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force General Scott Gration, has dismayingly gone along with the NCP demand that there be no delay in elections, and he has failed to speak out forcefully about the alarming findings of human rights groups and other election observers. Accommodation of the regime has consistently defined his tenure, which is now over a year old. When Khartoum expelled thirteen major international humanitarian organizations from Darfur in March 2009—organizations responding to the needs of some 4.7 million civilians—Gration insisted that this would not fundamentally compromise the humanitarian effort in the region.
It was clear then that this was not true, and any honest assessment of humanitarian capacity now reveals serious deficiencies and gaps in coverage, particularly in treating victims of rampant sexual violence. To add to this, Gration gained considerable notoriety for insisting that the Khartoum regime would be more likely to respond to “cookies…gold stars, and smiley faces” than to increased pressure from the United States and its allies. And in his effort to make the regime a more tractable partner, he has also fashioned the U.S. diplomatic position so that it has permitted Khartoum every electoral advantage and has offered it a clear field in Darfur peace negotiations.
In the process, Gration has alienated much of the rebel leadership in Darfur and–even more critically–Darfuri civil society, which has come to despise his appeasement of the regime. During Gration’s trip to Darfur last September, representatives of a number of displaced persons camps declared that they “reject any dealings with [Gration]” and called on President Obama to replace him, “not only because of his failure to improve the security and humanitarian situations [facing Darfuris], but also because he is acting against their interests in the areas of peace and justice” (Sudan Tribune, September 19, 2010). He has also lost the trust of the SPLM leadership, particularly with his suggestion last August to Salva Kiir—President of the Government of South Sudan and leader of the SPLM—that the referendum be deferred. The move so angered Kiir that he refused the U.S. suggestion publicly, though he did not name Gration as its proposer.
But perhaps most consequentially the U.S. envoy has sent Khartoum the signal that the United States will not object in any meaningful way to the electoral machinations that began in earnest with the 2008 census. When the results were released in early 2009, it was clear then that extraordinary distortions had been introduced. The slow-growing, nomadic Arab population of Darfur, for example, was reported as registering a 324 percent increase from the previous census. This is a population that the NCP counts on heavily for votes.
Coupled with pervasive voter registration fraud and intimidation, such statistical misrepresentation has ensured that Darfur—with approximately 20 percent of Sudan’s population—will yield rich electoral dividends for the NCP and will exclude many of the 3 million mainly non-Arab or African Darfuris who have been uprooted from their homes and exist as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) or refugees. As the International Crisis Group recently reported, “Since the [April 2010] vote will impose illegitimate officials through rigged polls, Darfuris will be left with little or no hope of a peaceful change in the status quo, and many can be expected to look to rebel groups to fight and win back their lost rights and lands.”
Census manipulation is also evident in the massive undercounting of marginalized Sudanese from all over the country who have fled to Khartoum to escape violence or abject poverty. There is strong evidence that this abused population has been undercounted by as many as 1 million people. There is also large-scale rigging, especially conspicuous during the voter registration process late last year, with its attendant gerrymandering of constituency boundaries.
But the real obstacle to free and fair elections in Sudan is the character of the regime and its unbridled use of both the state security apparatus and a vast, illegal patronage system funded by national wealth (Sudan is regularly found to be at the very bottom of international corruption indexes). This has long been evident to all who look, but the United States, the African Union, the EU, and the UN have all convinced themselves that there is sufficient value in an electoral exercise in Sudan, no matter how conspicuously compromised the process.
Having invested many tens of millions of dollars in these elections and convinced themselves that the NCP can be cajoled into behaving acceptably, Western nations have accepted the party’s continued domination of print and broadcast media, its flagrant abuses of the electoral machinery, and its unconstrained and unrelenting use of the National Intelligence and Security Services. General Gration, despite evidence to the contrary, has gone so far as to declare that he has “confidence” in the Khartoum-dominated National Election Commission and that elections would be “as free and fair as possible.”
Human Rights Watch, however, offers a different view:
In northern Sudan, security forces arbitrarily arrested members and election observers of opposition political parties and activists. In one example from South Darfur, national security forces beat and arrested an election observer and detained him without charge for 25 days. In Khartoum, the capital, armed national security forces assaulted and arrested members of an activist group for distributing fliers with slogans opposing President Omar al-Bashir. (“Sudan: Abuses Undermine Impending Elections,” January 24, 2010)
These realities—pervasive, if only partially reported by the media—will define the election of the coming days. The international policies of accommodation will be revealed not as contributing to Sudan’s “democratization” but to enabling further consolidation of power in the hands of the NCP. Unless it confronts a fundamental recalibration in current international policy, the Khartoum regime might use the electoral results to modify the terms of the linchpin CPA. Or it might use them to declare a “state of emergency” (such as presently prevails in Darfur) and indefinitely delay the self-determination referendum. Or it might simply refuse to accept the results of the referendum altogether.
Any of these actions is likely to provoke a unilateral declaration of independence by south Sudan, which will almost certainly spark renewed north/south conflict—conflict that will quickly engulf other parts of Sudan as well. But in spite of this, many international powers continue the policy of appeasing Khartoum’s génocidaires based on the belief that this brutal security cabal will do “the right thing” at the critical moment. This decision stands as a testament to either unconscionable naivete or deeply expedient disingenuousness. Either way, it is the people of Sudan who will pay.
Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.
(Homepage photo: Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir / U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt / Wikimedia Commons)