Darfur and the Elections Dilemma
One of the most encouraging outcomes from the last few weeks of consultations and hearings in Darfur and Khartoum, conducted by the African Union Panel, has been to highlight the extent to which there is a consensus about the kind of peace process needed and the issues that need to be discussed and resolved. There was far greater agreement across the political spectrum than I had imagined. Two months ago I was pessimistic about the capacity of Sudanese and Darfurian political processes to resolve the issues in the time available before the CPA timetable overwhelms Darfur. Today I am much more hopeful that under energetic leadership, with an inclusive process, a settlement of the Darfur crisis can in fact be achieved in time.
One of the key issues is the national elections. This question arose in every single public hearing, whether in Darfur or Khartoum. In general, the NCP and its supporters were in favour of proceeding with elections, and the armed movements, IDPs and those sceptical of the government were opposed. But it was not that simple.
At the civil society hearing in Nyala, one of the AU Panel members, Alhaji Mohamed Kebir, interrogated the civil society representatives who had earlier noted that there was no consensus on the question of whether elections should proceed.
“There are two points of view,” replied the civil society speaker. “One is that elections can be held now, it’s a principle and we should participate in the planned elections. There is no ideal world so we should make do. The other opinion is that there should be no elections; elections should wait for sustainable peace in Darfur.”
The elections-before-peace group was a minority, but an influential one. They marshaled several arguments. One was that the majority of Darfurians had been counted in the elections, which showed that, after Khartoum, South Darfur State was now the most populous in Sudan. How could Darfur then be left out of the electoral process? A Nyala CSO representative said, “We think there is a political transformation taking place. South Darfur is the second state in Sudan. If we have free, transparent and genuine elections we will have won a great deal. As long as life goes on, it is practical to hold elections, especially in secure areas.”
The case for participation continued, making the point that failing to join the electoral process would abdicate Darfurian participation in key national events leading up to the referendum in the south: “In Darfur we are part of Sudan. So it is an obligation that we should participate in any decision on the future of Sudan. Without us there is no Sudan. We are part of the political process, we should be a full partner…”
Some of the Arab nomads were similarly adamant. In the past, nomads have been poorly represented in electoral politics, often remaining off the voting rolls due to lack of registration. The larger share of nomads counted in the recent census encouraged them. Hassan Abdel Aziz Hassan of the Arab Coordinating Council of North Darfur said simply, “It is possible to hold elections in Darfur.”
At the political parties’ consultation in Khartoum, a senior NCP official, Ahmed Ibrahim Omer, argued that 95% of Darfur was secure and elections could proceed. In the IDP camps, he said, organizing the voting would be purely a “technical” matter.
A final argument was that the democratic transformation should not wait on a peace process that has been effectively stalled for the last three years. The CPA is at least moving, they argued, why hold it hostage to a Darfur peace process that is going nowhere? On the side of the meetings, some southern Sudanese expressed this view, noting that previous elections in Sudan in the 1960s and in 1986 had gone ahead without full southern participation (in the 1960s, a second round was held for many southern constituencies which had missed the main vote). Prof. David de Chand of the SSDF noted that the partial elections in southern Sudan in 1986 “are not an encouraging precedent.” He was worried that the outcome of this had been that the elected government was fatally compromised, resulting in continued war.
Most Darfurians, political parties and civil society representatives took the line that peace was needed before elections. They argued that large areas of Darfur””many localities in North Darfur and IDP camps””had not been enumerated in the census and people would be left of the voters’ roll. A representative from Abu Shok camp bluntly said, “We won’t participate in elections while our places are occupied.” Ismail Hussein Fadil, speaking at the civil society hearing in Khartoum, said, “Elections will be a problem for the camps. How can the camps be constituencies? Will those who occupied the land form new constituencies? Having elections under these conditions will create an even more complicated problem.” In the SLA-held area of Ain Siro, the youth representative said, “The 2010 elections: we have nothing to do with them.” Commander Ali Haroun added, “We don’t know if we are part of Sudan. Some of us are IDPs, refugees. We cannot trust the census. First we need peace, then we will think about other things.” These views were repeated almost verbatim across the three states by IDPs and a large proportion of others.
The issue was not democracy per se, but its timing. Sadiq al Mahdi summed it up: “Elections are vital but not viable without peace.”
This poses a challenge to those tasked with recommending a holistic settlement for Darfur (such as the AU Panel) and the mediation team headed by Joint Chief Mediator Djibril Bassolé. Neither the Panel nor the Mediator has the mandate to interfere in the national decision to hold elections. Up to now, Bassolé’s approach has been to stick to his immediate identified task of securing a ceasefire between the Sudan Government and JEM, and not deal with the election issue in any visible way. This caused some concern among the participants in the hearings. In Khartoum, one civil society participant asked “Where is Bassolé? He should be here to listen to us!”
President Thabo Mbeki has listened. He and the other panellists have pushed participants to explain their views on the elections and how they should relate to the peace process. It is clear that this is not an issue he will duck or take lightly. The one hint he has given thus far is to say that the schedule for the elections further increases the need to have a credible, inclusive and accelerated peace process for Darfur.