Friday, 16 April 2010


An election victory that widens the North-South gapWestern governments accept the regime’s rigged victory in exchange for what they hope will be a Southern referendum

Long before voting started on 11 April, it was clear that the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum would maintain its iron grip on power and that interested governments would accept this, despite the widespread evidence of fraud produced by Sudanese and foreign observers alike (AC Vol 51 No 7). The opposition decision to boycott spoiled the plan.

For Khartoum, internationally accepted elections would counter the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir. For Western governments, the elections were an essential building block in an orchestrated peace process which would culminate in next year’s referendum on independence for Southern Sudan.

After the opposition threatened a boycott, the United States Special Envoy, Air Force General (Retired) J. Scott Gration, flew in to ‘save’ the elections, initially due to run on 11-13 April but then extended due to the chaos. He declared them ‘as free and fair as possible’. A triumphant Field Marshal Omer told a 3 April rally in Blue Nile: ‘Even America is becoming an NCP member. No one is against our will.’ The ruling NCP (the rebranded National Islamic Front, NIF) cheered. Sudanese democrats felt betrayed.

Other concerns at this early stage include the growing estrangement between North and South and the divisions within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), linked to this widening gap. Meanwhile, the Northern opposition has surprised itself (and others) by its defiance of the NCP regime and will seek to use the coming year, when Khartoum will attempt to sabotage the Southern and Abyei referenda, to rebuild itself and strengthen its challenge to the NCP. Foreign governments and non-governmental organisations will focus on the South, leaving a victorious Khartoum more scope in its war in Darfur and in combating the Northern opposition’s attempts to restore democracy – and itself.

The NCP’s victory celebrations took flight in the week between the initial SPLM boycott and the start of voting. Its victory, it told the public in rallies and the media, would be the people’s victory, marking the democratic transformation (a key phrase) they had been waiting for since 1986 (date of the last multiparty elections, which were generally free – in the North, at least). A 6 April release by the very official Sudan News Agency (Suna) used the term ‘free and fair’ three times in three paragraphs.

Playing the crowd

The story was about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Under-Secretary, Mutref Siddig Ali, briefing European Union ambassadors. ‘He also emphasised the legal and logical necessity of an elected government to precede carrying out of the referendum to determine the future of south Sudan and realising the aspired democratic transformation in the country,’ said Suna of Mutref, a stern inner-core NCP man who frequently travels abroad to lay down the party line. This line has never included democracy, for throughout its brutal two decades in power, the party would have lost any fair election. Now, it will claim it has just won one.

The NCP has also been careful to link the elections to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which formally ended the war between the NCP and the SPLM/Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The culmination of the CPA is January’s Southern referendum on independence, along with the often forgotten one in Abyei on whether the District should join the South or stay in the North. The governments involved in the CPA, especially the ‘Troika’ of Britain, Norway and the USA, insisted these elections precede the referenda and see them as a crucial precursor. This is why they were endorsing the elections before they happened. In turn, Southerners widely see the referendum as the means to their liberation, with the elections as secondary.

This allowed the NCP to present itself as an enthusiastic proponent of both elections and peace. Omer el Beshir may have threatened to cut off the fingers, heads and tongues of foreign election monitors but the party calculated that, in the name of the CPA, it could get away with such threats and, indeed, with the aerial bombardment of Jebel Marra and Jebel Moon in Darfur that same week.

Another NCP tactic has been to present boycotts as merely reflecting the opposition’s fear of failure. ‘It is obvious that the opposition parties want to escape the competition because its leaders discovered that they are unable to convince the voters after two decades of splendid isolation during which they lost most of their active cadres,’ trumpeted the government’s Sudan Vision on 7 April.

The isolation and loss of activists is true – regime harassment and cooption combined with opposition ineptitude and poverty have ensured that. Yet despite all this, it is clear that much traditional support remains for the religiously based mega-parties, the National Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and that in transparent elections they would do well. So would the main secularist alternatives, the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) and, most of all, the SPLM, which among Northerners has taken off from nowhere. This was fed by the ecstatic welcome for the late SPLM Chairman, John Garang de Mabior, in Khartoum in July 2005 and the fact that many Northerners embrace his vision of a ‘New Sudan’, politically secular and giving some of the Nile Valley elite’s power to the country’s marginalised peoples.

Foreign optimists also constructed the edifice of the CPA on the broad shoulders of the stubborn and charismatic Colonel Garang. This is one reason many Sudanese nation-wide believe ‘Doctor John’ was assassinated by the NCP. The crash of the Ugandan presidential helicopter in Equatoria on 30 July 2005 has never been fully explained.

Electoral gifts for the NCP

After the complicity of foreign governments and the United Nations, the biggest electoral gifts to the NCP are the indecisiveness of the Northern opposition and of its ally in the National Consensus Forces (NCF, aka Juba Alliance), the SPLM. Confusion followed the SPLM’s 31 March announcement that it would boycott the Darfur and national presidential elections. Doubt had already spread earlier that day after SPLM Chairman Salva Kiir Mayardit had denied in a BBC interview that any such boycott would occur. The explanation was reluctantly proffered that he had not wanted to announce the boycott, agreed at an SPLM Political Bureau meeting, before it was discussed with the SPLM’s NCF allies.

His Deputy, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, had gone ahead and told the world anyway. Yet SPLM sources had already told Africa Confidential that, after meetings with the Northern opposition, a joint boycott was planned. When the SPLM made its unilateral announcement, some oppositionists accused it of doing a deal with its CPA ‘partner’, the NCP: ‘You can win the elections, as long as we get our referendum’. Such a bargain of course implies both that the NCP was not already sure of winning the elections and that it would stick to such an agreement when it has broken all previous ones.

Various SPLM leaders then went on to contradict each other over the boycott, with a clear division between Khartoum and Juba, leading one Movement official to make an analogy with Janus, the Ancient Roman god with two faces, looking in opposite directions. Indeed, the elections have brought out a lack of cohesion in SPLM policy and the contradiction at the heart of the CPA: that the SPLM is in legal (though not de facto) partnership in the ‘Government of National Unity’ with the NCP, which doesn’t want the South to secede, while Southerners and most SPLM officials wait impatiently for January’s referendum – and independence.

There is still, though, a group in the SPLM that believes in the New Sudan that lay at the core of the CPA for many of its foreign architects, who counted on John Garang to carry this through. During the CPA negotiations, both Britain and the USA were opposed to the independence referendum, one Western diplomat involved told Africa Confidential recently.

The SPLM in the North

In the SPLM, the unity group is seen as led by Secretary General Pa’gan Amum Okiech and his deputy for the Northern Sector, Yasir Saeed Arman Saeed, who spearheaded the election boycott by withdrawing as national presidential candidate on 31 March. Asked whether, in the case of an independence vote, he would go North or South, Yasir (a Northerner) answered ‘North’. This has crystallised the idea of a Northern SPLM continuing after the referenda; till then, the SPLM theoretically remains a partner of the NCP, although relations seem unlikely to improve.

On 10 April, Yasir Arman sought to quash rumours of rifts: ‘Myself, First Vice-President Silva Kiir Mayardit and Secretary General Pa’gan Amum are comrades for a quarter of a century. We will not be taken apart by three day elections,’ he declared. Yasir, a former Communist from the Gezira, developed a charismatic campaign himself and Sudanese will hear more of him. It will be interesting to see which direction the equally articulate Pa’gan, a Collo (Shilluk) from Upper Nile, eventually takes. It is keeping SPLM strategists busy.

Differences in the Northern opposition are less grounded but more damaging: they prevented the NCF from presenting the united poll boycott that would have received a warm welcome in the North (contrary to the South, where a boycott was popularly perceived as threatening the referendum). Both the Umma Party and DUP have long suffered from factionalism but the boycott highlighted the ambivalence of their leaders. After much dithering, the Umma’s El Sadig el Sideeg el Mahdi had decided, eventually, not to boycott but was forced to cave in to pressure from senior party people. Over 100 wrote to him demanding a boycott, we hear. This may reflect the gradual internal democratisation that party sources say is now taking place in the dynastic institution.

Also dynastic is the DUP, now often called DUP-Original. Head of it and the Khatmiyya sect is Mohamed Osman el Mirghani, in the 1990s head of the then opposition umbrella, the National Democratic Alliance, and active in the mid-1980s peace talks with the SPLM which El Sadig long shunned and which the NIF coup was timed to terminate.

Mohamed Osman declared he would boycott but then, we understand, was approached by the NCP and changed his mind. His deputy, lawyer Ali Mahmoud Hassanein, had since December called for a boycott; he predicted to Africa Confidential this week that most Unionists would boycott polling and called for the united opposition to stand firm.

That will be the post-electoral challenge for the Consensus Forces, which were unable to maintain their consensus enough even to boycott a poll they had all agreed was rigged in advance (including Hassan Abdullah el Turabi and his Popular Congress Party, who surprised few by rejecting the boycott by the opposition of which he was theoretically part). The NCP will offer ministerial but power-free portfolios to a handful of NCF leaders and call this a democratic consensus government.

Nevertheless, the genie has been allowed out of the bottle and it will not return. The greatest opposition momentum lies with the secularist parties, notably the SPLM and SCP, which may well reinforce their ties to the leading Sudan Liberation Movement groups in Darfur. A strengthened NCP will divide its strategy between them and the South.

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