Will Elections in Sudan Mirror Peace or Provide New Grounds for Conflict?

26th August 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

After two decades of civil war between the Sudanese People's Army/Movement (SPLA/M) of the south and the government of Sudan, the parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 in Naivasha, Kenya. In summing up the achievement of six protocols earlier signed between major parties in the civil war, the CPA deserves credit for ending one of Africa's longest civil wars that claimed more than two million lives and displaced another four million. While negotiations were protracted, the compromises it brought out of the two parties relating to power sharing, wealth sharing, the role of religion and other key issues are vital. It is on the basis of the CPA that the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) as a peacekeeping mission, draws its mandate. However, four years after signing it, the CPA remains by all accounts as fragile as Sudan itself, with several armed groups yet to be disarmed, key state institutions yet to be rebuilt or reformed, and social infrastructure in need of rehabilitation. Central to the survival of the CPA however, is the provision of holding general elections, and a referendum on self-determination for Southern Sudan.
While the UN Security Council mandated UNMIS in 2005 under Resolution 1590 to support the implementation of the CPA, its actual role transcends its traditional peacekeeping function. In addition to monitoring the ceasefire, assisting in disarmament and reforming police institutions and the provision of electoral assistance is pivotal at this point in time. In creating the Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), UNMIS positioned itself to provide both operational and technical support to a very complex electoral process in a context that can best be described as porous. First, this is the first general election in more than twenty years that will open numerous fault lines of civic illiteracy and logistical challenges associated with poor infrastructure and the vast size of Sudan. As a further complexity in this electoral cycle, Sudanese are expected to cast ballots for at least six elective positions namely: President of Sudan, President of Southern Sudan, National Assembly members, Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly members, State Assembly members and State Governors. Thirdly, the electoral process is already significantly delayed from the step by step approach proposed by the CPA to the resolution of key outstanding issues namely: a census crucial to the determination of constituency boundaries, enactment of electoral laws and appointment of an electoral commission.
As has emerged, the census exercise was not only delayed by close to a year, the results are still disputed by especially the leadership from Southern Sudan, with an obvious implication for the delay of voter registration and consequently general elections as well as the referendum. Tensions and violent clashes over the disputed Abyei border area and contentions over the electoral processes, if not addressed early, will stretch the capacity of UNMIS not only in provision of electoral assistance but also fulfilling its overall peacekeeping mandate. As cited in recent media reports, the suspicions and mistrust fermenting between the Sudanese People's Liberations Movement (SPLM) and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) as major parties in the peace process remains a critical obstacle to the legitimacy of the process that UNMIS will have to contend with. The current standoff between the SPLM and the NCP on whether to use the 1956 census results or the 2009 census results as respectively preferred by the two parties as a basis to draw geographical constituencies, means the elections will be significantly delayed and likely to provide ground for another civil unrest.
There is no doubt that the election process is already behind schedule: the census that was mandated by the CPA in 2007 was only conducted last year, as is the enactment of the electoral laws and establishment of an electoral commission. As to whether these delays are a result of well-orchestrated political manoeuvres by either of the parties to the CPA, or genuine logistical difficulties - it is probably both - remains a secondary issue. The loss of lives, displacement of people, and destruction of infrastructure wherever it existed following twenty-one years of conflict, places on all duty bearers the responsibility to act diligently in supporting the electoral process.
In the final analysis, the elections, if eventually conducted, will be far from a perfect one by most standards but will nevertheless provide an important milestone not only in implementing the CPA, but also in ushering a new era of stability after years of civil war. However, with the current tensions, suspicions as well as disputes over the processes, the elections already delayed may prove difficult to organise, and if indeed conducted, its outcomes are more likely to be determined by other factors than ballot counts. Whichever way it goes, UNMIS will be at the centre of how Sudan navigates this political process and needs the support of all Sudanese as well as the international community.

Written by: Xavier Ejoyi, Researcher, Training for Peace Programme, ISS Nairobi Office