Sudan: Crash Course to Conflict?

April 7, 2010

As the end of the interim period for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement nears in January 2011, the fragile peace between the North and the South may be close to unraveling. Sudan’s first elections in twenty-four years are just around the corner on April 11, 2010. Although the international community had been hoping for a smooth electoral contest after a relatively peaceful-although flawed-voter registration process, there are a number of red flags pointing to the possibility of the outbreak of violence.  Before this week, they were limited to continued repression of opposition candidates, threats to expel elections observers and laws limiting the opposition’s political rights of assembly and speech. However, the recent decision by opposition parties to partially or fully boycott the polls may have severe ramifications for security and stability.

Sudanese supporters of the south's SPLM party wave the southern flag at a rally in Bentiu, state capital of Unity. © Peter Martell/IRIN
Sudanese supporters of the south's SPLM party wave the southern flag at a rally in Bentiu, state capital of Unity. © Peter Martell/IRIN

Human rights advocacy organizations, most recently Human Rights Watch, warn that government repression and human rights violations in Sudan threaten the legitimacy of the elections as free, credible and fair.  In the north, NCP government efforts to diminish the opposition’s political power in advance of elections have resulted in arbitrary arrests, detainment or abduction of activists, the break-up or prevention of public meetings and other violations of civil, political and human rights. 

Already in January of this year, Amnesty International drew attention to the Sudanese government’s violent crackdown and torture of more than 200 protesters that were speaking out about delays in passing vital laws for the forthcoming referendum and elections.  In addition, a recent report (pdf)  from the Carter Center  stressed the repressive nature of the Electoral Law and the opposition’s stifled freedoms of assembly and inability to freely campaign against the standing government. The report points specifically to the case of three young activists who were arrested for noise disturbance in a public place while trying to raise awareness of the campaign process.

Election observers and the opposition have called for a postponement of the April elections due to security and fairness concerns, citing restrictions (pdf) against “citizens’ freedom of assembly and freedom of speech under the Sudanese National Security Forces Act, Press and Publications Act, and the passing of restrictive legislation that is incompatible with Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim National Constitution (INC) .  They have also pointed to the government’s failure to finalize the process for dealing with voting irregularities and/or violence, especially in the more contentious areas like Darfur, and the unclear role for security forces in the process as other complicating factors to a peaceful vote.  Delays and changes in polling rules also have the potential to disenfranchise voters and lead to violence.  Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s radical reply to demands for delayed elections highlights the gravity of the situation.

We brought these organizations from outside to monitor the elections, but if they ask for them to be delayed, we will throw them out. We wanted them to see the free and fair elections, but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes and throw them out

The repression and violation of the opposition’s civil and political rights during the campaign process has the potential to illicit a wave of violent protests from alienated groups in the event of a National Congress Party (NCP) win in April.  And the Sudanese government’s history of clamping down on opposition group protests does not bode well for human rights.

The concern about election related violence may have spurred the SPLM’s announcement to partially boycott elections by withdrawing both its Presidential candidate for the Government of National Unity and local candidates in Darfur.  Citing security concerns and severe restrictions on their ability to assemble, access state media or campaign freely, the SPLM was later joined by several other opposition groups in a full boycott of elections.  The response from Khartoum – current President and NCP candidate Omar al-Bashir- has threatened to halt January’s referendum on Southern secession.

A lot is riding on this election and the potential for escalation is high.  If elections do in fact take place, it will be important to include human rights monitoring as a key element of election observations.  If elections do not proceed and the referendum in January is delayed or cancelled, the proliferation of small arms and continued existence of armed groups could mean that Sudan could devolve into another civil war.