Free and fair elections should ideally only take place when there is a stable security environment. Many fear that the upcoming elections in Sudan, from 11 to 13 April, would lead to unrestrained competition and increase conflict in the country. Worries that the 2009 International Criminal Court indictment of President Omar al Bashir on charges relating to Darfur would undermine the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) and the election schedule, and further destabilize the country, have so far proven to be unfounded.
President Bashir, though politically weakened in the eyes of some observers, has used the indictment to rally national political forces to his cause while simultaneously dismissing the charges as ill-founded and hypocritical. As Simon Tisdall of the Guardian in the United Kingdom wrote: "it's a remarkable prospect, and one that has been largely overlooked by a western world accustomed to criticizing, not celebrating Africa. Barring a last-minute disaster, the people of Sudan will go to the polls next month to elect a president, a national legislature, regional governors, and the leadership of the semi-autonomous south. The elections are a way-marker on a long, incomplete journey". The military option failed, on both sides.
Throughout its independent history, Sudan has been characterized by multiple levels of conflict and by tensions between the mostly Arab and Islamic northern part of the country, and the non-Arab and non-Muslim southern part. However, a confluence of interests among previously warring individuals and groups is feeding confidence that the elections will be a success. A key building block was last February's preliminary peace treaty between the government and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Darfur`s largest armed group. Government officials signed the deal with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella group of small factions in Qatar, weeks after Khartoum inked a now faltering accord with Darfur`s powerful insurgent JEM.
The prospects of stability in Sudan are related to the prospects of change. If Sudan is encouraged by the African Union (AU) to change in ways that promote grater cooperation through the adoption of harmonized and coordination of policies in a context of reduced challenges to the elections with greater protection of all the Sudanese people without discrimination, there are good prospects for stability. The keen interest of the government of Southern Sudan, created under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, (CPA) for moving without delay towards January`s independence referendum, is another reason why the election campaign is proceeding smoothly. President al-Bashir, has a head start in the presidential race due to his access to state media, his opponents say.
There will be spoilers in this process, those who see the benefit in instability and are enemies of peace. Peace negotiations have been taking place for months that deal reached is an important step. Sudan`s Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha said in the Qatari capital Doha, a few weeks ago "We call on all movements and factions including JEM to join in serious and honest negotiations as soon as possible,".
The UN has not become directly involved but works and supports the AU which has in turn supports the Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD). President Bashir now has bigger issues to attend to, occupied by elections this year and the real prospect of southern secession after the referendum of self-determination scheduled for 2011.
Since 2005, President Bashir`s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Southern People`s Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by Salva Kiir, have been locked in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement. Now they have found common purpose: elections. The SPLM and NCP have been negotiating hard on a host of bilateral issues. The imminence of the election has concentrated their minds and a number of deals have been struck in quick succession. This shows that when necessary, they can do business.
The AU can be much more confident that the two parties will be able to negotiate the arrangements for the referendum and what follows without a catastrophic breakdown. But the role played by the AU in Sudan is concentrated in the Darfur Region while little attention is being paid to the bigger picture in the Sudan as a whole.
The NCP, running on a pragmatic, nationalist ticket emphasizing economic growth, is widely expected to emerge after the elections as the largest party, with President Bashir returning to the presidency. If so, this outcome will also be due in part to President Bashir`s unexpectedly conciliatory stance on secession. He has said he would be the first to recognize its independence.
The AU does not, for example recognize Somaliland's independence. What will be the AU position if Southern Sudan opts for secession?
Sources indicate that it could still all go wrong. Plenty of obstacles to successful elections remain. In Darfur, recent fighting in Jebel Marra between government forces and a rejectionist faction, the Sudan Liberation Army of Abdul Wahid al-Nur, has displaced tens of thousands of people. The clashes were a reminder how very fragile the situation there remains. Fire-starting north-south disagreements over sharing oil resources, citizenship, and census figures are unresolved.
Ethnic and tribal violence persists across the south. Opposition parties belonging to the National Consensus Alliance, also known as the Juba Conference, have said they may boycott the polls. And concerns persist about restrictions on campaigning, potential fraud, and bias allegedly exhibited by the National Elections Commission and national media.
The war has been costly, claiming more than 2 million lives, with many more dislocated and injured. There is no victor and no vanquished in Sudan's long civil war. The AU has several challenges in Sudan. A case in point is the possible South Sudan government in 2011 after referendum. That is if all goes well with the elections and the southerners vote for independence in the referendum. What will be the key features and issues a future southern Sudan may face? All this notwithstanding, Sudan has come a long way and much further than many at the AU and member states would have expected. At long last, the direction of travel is positive. It deserves acknowledgement and encouragement by all peace loving nations.
Good luck Sudan
Written by: Marcel R.D. Chirwa, Senior Research Fellow, Head of Africa Peace Support Trainers` Association, APSTA Secretariat , ISS Addis Ababa