Why Would the Proponents of a New Sudan Promote Electoral Apartheid?
The Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) yet again delivered on its thousand and one vows to boycott sessions of the National Legislature last week. The reason this time was parliamentary debate over the Southern Sudan Referendum Bill, which specifies legislation for the 2011 referendum, meant to determine whether or not the South secedes from Sudan.
The Referendum Bill has undergone intensive debate between all political parties for the past eighteen months. It was subject to several evaluations, beginning with the National Constitutional Review Commission (NCRC); the Trilateral Talks brokered by the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration; and, finally, the Political Committee between the NCP and SPLM, co-chaired by Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha and Vice President of the Government of Southern Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar.
But eighteen months of efforts to marshal national consensus have been squandered by the SPLM in one fell swoop. As a result of disagreement over a single sub-article the SPLM has sentenced Sudan’s referendum bill to death by firing squad.
In this brief article we are not concerned with political correctness, or with what the mechanical minority should or should not do. We are not concerned with the criticism leveled at mechanical minorities when they foster brinkmanship, resort to delaying tactics, and boycott democratic processes. What we are concerned with is an examination of the debated sub-article regarding referendum voting process, which can be used to gauge the SPLM’s level of commitment to the New Sudan project, based on what it purports to represent and promise.
The SPLM boycotted the parliamentary session that was debating the Southern Sudan Referendum Bill because they objected to amendments in sub-article 27 (3), which prevents a certain category of southerners from registering or casting their votes anywhere outside of southern Sudan, even in centres set up for this purpose. Who is included in this category of southerners? According to the wording of the bill, “all southern Sudanese whose origins are traceable to one of the ethnic groups in Southern Sudan, but who are not permanently and uninterruptedly resident in southern Sudan before or since the 1st of January 1956.”
Rendered into simple English, this means that, if you are a southerner descendent from southern Sudanese who migrated to the North to escape atrocities of the war, or in the southern diaspora, you cannot exercise your right to register and vote in the referendum, where you live. You can only exercise this right in the South.
Rendered into even simpler language, if a Taposa southerner who fits into this unfortunate category were living in either Halfa in the far north of Sudan, or in Port Sudan to the extreme East, he would have to travel — at his own expense — to register in Eastern Equatoria State. Furthermore, since there must be a lapse of time between registration and voting, and since this individual likely has business to attend to where he lives, he would have to travel all the way back to Port Sudan or Halfa — also at his own expense — only to return to the South again once voting starts.
It is important to note that all this burdensome travel, which the SPLM wants to impose on hundreds of thousands of southerners, is not necessitated by the absence of voting centers in the North – whether in Halfa, in Port Sudan or in Nyala. On the contrary, the debated law provides for such centers to be used for the referendum as long as there are enough southerners to justify them in any given part of the country. The SPLM proposal means that our unfortunate Taposa friend, whose mother gave birth to him somewhere in the North while escaping the atrocities of war in the south, will have to travel prohibitively long distances to vote. It could happen that he lives a stone’s-throw away from a voting center in Port Sudan; however, the article states that he will not be able to register or vote in that center. Instead, he will have to travel south more than once — just to practice his legal right to vote.
Without a doubt, making the trip twice will be a hell of a problem for him, both financially and physically. And it requires that our southern friend hold a very strong faith in the exercise of his rights, one that matches the faith and perseverance of the Prophet Noah. This means that article 27 (3) as espoused by the SPLM takes by the left hand what it gave to the southerners by the right hand. In practice, the number of southerners voting according to article 27 (3) would come to naught if we allow the SPLM-promoted stipulations to be signed into law.
This begs an important question: for whom are the international and Northern Sudanese voting centers, provided for by the law, intended?
The answer is that they are intended for a privileged group of southerners who are much more distinguished than others. Such a group would include most of the political leaders and other favored southerners who will easily be able to prove they lived in the South after 1956, as the article in question requires.
That the referendum bill requires southerners to return south to vote reflects the view that either they are untrustworthy or they do not adequately represent the South. In order to have them prove their southern-ness, the SPLM leadership wants to require exhausting trips. This type of non-constitutional discrimination divides southerners into two categories: first class southerners and second class southerners. Members of the first category may enter and vote in centres in the North; members of the second category, who are equally eligible, may not — put more candidly, it is electoral apartheid. This was the system which the NCP refused to accept during the session this week. And it was exactly the system promoted by the SPLM, which quit the session when Parliament did not approve it.
When marginalization is mentioned, it usually refers to social marginalization of the type practiced by a society without any official directives to do so. But for this social practice to become legally approved by the Parliament and signed into law, will usher in a more sinister type of marginalization that should be rejected in principle. The Legal Committee in the Parliament recognized this dangerous possibility and unanimously approved the report demanding the removal of any discriminatory articles. The legislation that took eighteen full months to prepare is now approved by the Parliament — and in better shape without its pro-apartheid articles.
Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani is Leader of the NCP Caucus in the Sudan Parliament.