The human cost: a child growing up in one of the biggest camps for internally displaced persons in north Darfur. Flickr / United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.
Sudan’s presidential and parliamentary elections take place as opposition figures rot in jail and the government’s campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ makes it dangerous, if not impossible, for millions to vote. Newspapers are routinely confiscated and peaceful protest is crushed with unhesitating brutality. Respectable international election-monitoring organisations are unlikely to be present, because few conditions for a credible election exist.
Nevertheless, after the 13-15 April poll, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) will claim to have a legitimate mandate. The result will be recognised by Sudan’s supporters within the Arab League and the African Union (AU) and by its business and military partners, such as Iran, China and Russia. Officials in the US, the UK and the EU will likely wait until afterwards to express any doubts about its validity, ostensibly because they do not wish to damage the unlikely possibility that there might be a meaningful national dialogue about the future of Sudan—their concerns will attract little attention.
The international community supported Sudan’s 2010 election with generous financial contributions, voter-education programmes and expensive monitoring missions. It gave the ruling NCP the benefit of the doubt, ignoring the wider context of the poll.
That context has been thoroughly documented over the years by groups like Freedom House, which awarded the Islamist regime the lowest ranking. Transparency International considers Sudan the third most corrupt nation, adding weight to doubts about the independence of its national election commission and polling officials.
Amnesty International has catalogued the violent repression of peaceful protest and the routine arrest and torture of opposition politicians, activists and lawyers. In 2014 editions of newspapers were confiscated 52 times, after they had been printed, guaranteeing crippling financial losses for the publishers. And Human Rights Watch has reported on decades of Khartoum-sponsored bloodshed in what is now independent South Sudan, and in marginalised peripheries such as Darfur and the Nuba mountains.
Khartoum continues to use aerial bombardment and local proxy militia to impose its narrow Arab and Muslim vision of Sudan on its more ethnically and religiously diverse populations—“changing the demography”, as the indicted Janjaweed militia leader Musa Hilal put it. In 2010 even those election observers who focused narrowly on the mechanics of the polling, in isolation from the intimidation and civil war, found ballot boxes being openly stuffed by officials.
Sudan’s normally schismatic opposition has recently rallied around the Sudan Call platform, boycotting the elections. It appealed to the UN and AU to heed its warnings about the absence of freedom of speech, the compromised national electoral commission, the dodgy electoral register and the likelihood that 2010’s irregularities would be repeated. Yet US policy remains to encourage the NCP regime to reform itself.
The regime is still on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism—and for good reason.
Seasoned Sudan watchers point to Khartoum’s record of broken promises, the violation of international treaties and conventions, and the daily flouting of its own constitution. Despite all evidence to the contrary, however, the international community continues to urge the president, Omar al-Bashir—indicted by the International Criminal Court, accused of genocide in Darfur—to change his ways after 25 years in power.
According to Magdi el-Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute, Sudan’s real political process is not the election but the prior negotiations between competing interests for the nomination in parliamentary seats where the result has already been determined. He predicts change will come not through internal reform but via a coup by ambitious military officers.
A cynic might ask why any of this matters. Elections often give legitimacy to regimes, irrespective of how dubious the voting. Diplomats more engaged with current pressure points—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Ukraine—wish to remove troublesome, less important countries like Sudan from their ‘in’ trays.
Elections are seen as a step toward ending collective responsibility for failing or repressive states: they enable the UN and other embodiments of the international community to tick a box. And politicians (who must surely know better) maintain the convenient myth that a poll in a violent kleptocracy like Sudan will lead to the election of politicians who want peace, progress, reform and development for their citizens.
But Sudan’s elections should matter. The regime is still on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism—and for good reason.
Egypt and what remains of the Libyan government have been pressing Khartoum to stop supplying local offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaeda with weapons. Israel has bombed weapons convoys taking Iranian arms via Sudan into Gaza. Uganda maintains Sudan is aiding the Lord’s Resistance Army. And South Sudan officials accuse its leaders of supporting the opposition in a civil war which the International Crisis Group says has claimed 50,000 lives since December 2013.
By holding its collective tongue before the Sudanese poll, the international community also belittles the efforts of those countries struggling to emerge from dictatorship, conducting free and fair elections. Nothing is more humbling than to witness thousands of voters patiently waiting in line in the baking African sun, proud to exercise their rights as citizens, silently paying tribute to those who gave their lives for the right to vote in credible elections.
Sudan’s elections should be denounced—without waiting for the outcome.
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