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The 2009 Elections: Landmines on the road to democratic transition in Sudan

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By Elwathig Kameir

January 3, 2009 — The 2009 elections in Sudan, to be followed by a self-determination referendum for the south, are both key prerequisites of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was concluded on January 9, 2005, between the Government of the Sudan (GOS), represented by the National Congress Party (NCP), and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) that ended a 22-year civil war. The elections, thus, serve as a mechanism for democratic transformation after almost two decades (1989-2005) of monopolizing state power by one party, as well as provide a political space for making unity “attractive” by persuading southerners to vote for unity in the upcoming referendum.

Informed by experiences of post-elections violence in African conflicts, discontent with elections results, especially in countries emerging from violent conflict, would be a function of mismanagement of democratic transformation and the peaceful transition to multi-partyism. This mismanagement in the case of Sudan is conditioned by a ruling party, resistant to change and weak (opposition) political parties and civil society, in a situation where part of the country (the South) is threatening with separation.

This presentation hypothesizes that organizing fair and free elections, monitored by all stakeholders, is the only route for both averting post-elections violence, and persuading southern Sudanese to vote for unity in the referendum scheduled at the end of the 6-year interim period in 2011.


The failure of the Sudanese opposition forces, under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in uprooting the Salvation regime, following the National Islamic Front (NIF) military coup on June 30, 1989, through political and military means, laid the ground for reaching a negotiated settlement, though on separate tracks (Niavasha, Abuja, Asmara, and Cairo). Premised on the Machakos Protocol (20 July 2000), The CPA represents a milestone in the transition towards a democratic united Sudan, albeit on a new basis. In other words, the CPA is rather a vehicle for affecting the “deconstruction” process of the one-party system and the transition from authoritarianism to democratic polity through the democratic transformation on which the Agreement was essentially premised.

A cursory overview of the provisions of the CPA indicates that, if credibly implemented, the Agreement promises to promote the ideals of constitutionalism, good governance, the rule of law, democratic participation, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also promises to foster a unity framework based on racial, ethnic, religious and cultural equality, subsumed under the notion of the New Sudan, advocated by the SPLM/A, particularly by its late leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior. Although it is widely anticipated that the South will vote to secede after six years, there is strong regional and international support for the Sudan to remain united, the prospects of which can only be enhanced by the credible implementation of the CPA.

In addition to the unprecedented constitutional and institutional powers and authority in the political and economic domains, which the CPA bestows on the south, the Agreement’s Power Sharing Protocol ensures the participation of Southerners, proportional to the population of the South, in the federal system of rule,. Moreover, perhaps more importantly, the CPA constitutionally endorses citizenship rights, and not religion, as the basis for public office eligibility, including the presidency, public service and enjoyment of rights and duties.


Elections constitute the mechanism for effecting the envisaged democratic transformation and the transition from one-party rule to political pluralism after leveling the play ground that would make these elections fair and free at the end of the first half of the interim-period. One major obstacle to this transformation is the NCP’s monopoly of state power for almost two decades and its reluctance to make the necessary concessions. The NCP cannot shy away from the stark fact that the CPA essentially is a tool for dismantling the one-party rule and monopoly of state power through democratic elections and peaceful exchange of power, unless it is believed that the party and the state are one and the same thing. The NCP can then compete with the others freely and fairly in a democratic test for each party’s acclaimed base of support and popularity. This is the essence of democratic transformation embodied in the Agreement and enshrined in the constitution.


All political forces, despite of reservations regarding the “bilateral” nature of the CPA, concur that its faithful implementation, honoring the other peace agreements, on the part of the NCP, and resolving the Darfur conflict, constitute a roadmap for transition to participatory and multi-party democracy, including “voluntary” unity, or peaceful partition of the country, following the referendum on self-determination. Though the elections law has been promulgated (to the distaste of the opposition parties), and the Elections Commission has been formed, an assemblage of landmines, however, seems to have been planted on the road of this transition, the outcome of which would be various forms of violent conflict. The mighty challenges that ensue from such devastating conflicts are likely to daunt any mender:

1- The overarching challenge to free and fair elections is that the CPA has turned the parties to it, which had and still have, radically contrasting visions for the country, into ruling partners. Have they truly forged a sincere and credible partnership or are they likely to pursue their differences and conflicts by other means? Whatever the answer to the question, the experience of the last three years show that tensions have persisted, that the two partners have remained committed to their ideological positions, and that the process of implementation is being adversely affected by these persisting differences. Indeed, this has already surfaced in a prominent way as the SPLM/A leadership has been voicing serious complaints about the implementation process, notably issues such as the Protocol on Abyei, Security Arrangements, Oil revenues, and border demarcation. The SPLM further accuses the NCP of turning the independent Assessment and Evaluation Commission of the CPA into a rubberstamp, while the National Congress Party (NCP), the other partner in the Government of National Unity (GNU), has been defending the credibility of the process. Not only that, but the SPLM froze the participation of its both Cabinet and State Ministers in the GONU following the crisis that arose from non implementation, and violation of key provisions of the CPA. The cardinal question is: would the two partners in power be able to overcome their deep-rooted differences and prepare the ground for free and fair elections, which would eventually lead to peacefully conduct the self-determination referendum?

2- Amendment of laws (National Security, Media and Publication, Criminal Code) restricting freedom of expression and organization for individuals, political parties, and the media, and contravening both the CPA and the Interim National Constitution (INC), is still due, including the formation of the National Human Rights Commission. Repealing and replacing these laws with ones that are in line with the CPA and INC is a necessary precondition for creating the enabling environment for free and fair elections and leveling the playground for the competing political parties. Actions, on the part of the NCP component of the GONU that contravene the INC, especially the Bill of Rights, includes unlawful detention of political opponents, high-handedness by the law enforcement agencies in carrying out their duties, partisan approach by the Minister of Justice in undertaking the duties entrusted to him under the constitution. Political forces are deeply concerned by the crackdown on journalists, media professionals and media houses throughout the country. The increasing censorship of newspapers, and the harassment, detention and torture of media practitioners has reached alarming levels in Sudan.

3- In addition to the delay in conducting the general population census, the non inclusion of questions related to “ethnicity and religion” into the census questionnaire is a serious concern that will most likely render the census results disputed and unacceptable to southerners. The SPLM, as partner in power, is suspicious of the NCP’s intention of both manipulating the identity of the Sudanese peoples and defining the electoral constituencies to their advantage. In a recent strongly worded message, the Chairman of the SPLM and President of the GOSS stated that his government would not accept the census results if the population of the south were counted “to be less than 15 million”! Southerners view such manipulation as amounting to rigging of census results with the objective of denying them their share in power and wealth, just as border demarcation is instrumental for determining whether the oil-producing areas fall in the south or the north. The NCP, on its part, looks at such statements as moves intended by the SPLM to obstruct the forthcoming elections due to the Movement’s weakness and inability to compete in multi-party elections, thus its intention to call for postponing the elections, an accusation strongly denied by the SPLM.

4- The anticipated conflict over the census results is closely associated with the other equally contentious issue of north-south border demarcation, which also bears on the allocation of electoral geographical constituencies in the two parts of the country.

5- The conflict in Darfur is still raging on, and all the proposed internal and external initiatives have not yet succeeded in bringing the conflicting parties to the negotiation table, let alone reaching a peaceful political settlement. Various leaders of the ruling NCP party strongly insist on conducting the elections on schedule (July 2009) in complete disregard to the deleterious consequences of going ahead with partial elections. Most of the opposition political forces have warned against holding general elections before resolving the conflict in Darfur. The armed groups in Darfur have already made it clear that they would not accept to be left out, particularly since they perceive themselves as national movements that aspire to contest elections in any part of the country. Drawing from the experience of the past, partial elections were always considered illegitimate and their results were unrecognized by the former rebels in the south. During the famous 9-hour meeting between the Late SPLM Chairman and the former Prime Minister in Addis Ababa, immediately following the last general multi-party elections of 1986, Dr. John Garang chastised Sadiq El-Mahdi for the hasty decision of holding the elections before reaching a political settlement. The former Premier responded that “We have reserved the whole south for you”, and the Late SPLM Chairman countered “But, who told you that I am looking for an electoral constituency in the south? I want to contest elections in Kassala, in Eastern Sudan!”.

6- The NCP has complete monopoly over the material, human and institutional resources of the state, particularly the media in its various forms, which jeopardizes the other political forces’ chances of competing on equal footing in the upcoming elections.

7- All the rest of the political forces, including the SPLM, are not yet ready for the exercise of competitive elections, as they suffer from organizational weakness, remoteness from their respective constituencies, lack of resources, and internal divisions and differences.


The fate of the 2009 elections is further complicated by the looming threat of the ICC Prosecutor’s warrant of arresting the President of the Republic. In light of this serious development, a number of scenarios can be contemplated:


The threat of a possible ICC indictment of the President is averted through the diplomatic efforts of the AU, Arab countries, Russia and China, in persuading the Security Council to freeze the Court’s procedures for one year (indefinitely renewable), as per Article 16 of its Statute. This would restore the legitimacy of the President and permit the NCP to pay its dues and respect its CPA and constitutional obligations of ensuring a peaceful transition to multi-party democracy, thus reducing the prospect of post-elections violence. This scenario, however, might be deemed unrealistic by many.


The hurdle of the ICC is peacefully overcome through positively responding to the demands of the international community, thus the NCP is resigned to create all the necessary conditions for holding free and fair elections to the satisfaction of all political forces, which greatly minimizes the possibility of post-elections violence. However, this scenario would require reaching a political understanding between the NCP and the rest of the political parties on reconstituting the GONU on the basis of a National Program, while agreeing on postponing the elections for a defined period of time to prepare the ground for a peaceful transition, and allowing room for a political settlement of the conflict in Darfur.


The NCP continues its defiance to the ICC, by adamantly refusing to deal with the Court or heed the calls of the Security Council and the international community. One possible version of this scenario is to insist on holding the elections on schedule, therefore giving an edge to the NCP that already have full monopoly on power and wealth, regardless of the above mentioned landmines, thus most probably leading to various forms of violent protests over elections results by the different political forces and alliances, including boycotting participation. A worst version of this scenario is that the impending indictment of the President might trigger a violent power struggle within the ruling NCP that would ultimately spread out to engulf the whole country in a devastating civil war, thus the disintegration of the Sudanese state. As an outcome, the international community and its UN body is bracing for the possible reprisal from Khartoum against the UN personnel, aid workers, and civilians. Khartoum has threatened to cause indiscriminate atrocities on the international community personnel, humanitarian workers and the civil population as an act of vengeance. Leading with these threats is President al-Bashir himself; he used the derogatory expression that all those behind ICC are “underneath his shoe!”.


Following a possible indictment of the President, the NCP continues its defiance to the ICC, forcibly mobilizes its bases of support, and ventures to rally the rest of the political forces around the cause of defending the sovereignty of the country against any foreign aggression, even if it necessitated the declaration of a Sate of Emergency. Such move might be resisted by all political forces, including the SPLM, on the ground of violating both the CPA and the INC. In light of the expected regional and international political pressures and threats of economic embargos, a mounting internal opposition (including violent reaction on the part of the armed factions in Darfur), and a probable crack of the NCP’s unity and coherence of its ranks, violent power struggle within the ruling party would simmer and the whole situation might develop in a new direction, thus lending itself to open-ended scenarios in the process of reconstituting the Sudanese State.


The focus on (probable) post-elections violence in the case of Sudan should be looked at in the context of the overall transitional arrangements predicated on the CPA. Thus, the mismanagement of the transition to multi-party democracy would result in various forms of violent conflict, in the best of scenarios, and to the collapse of the Sudanese state, in the worst of scenarios. However, this focus must not divert our attention from a further (probable) timed-bomb violent conflict over the fate of the self-determination referendum, the Abeye referendum, and popular consultations to ascertain the views of the people in the two areas: Southern Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan on the CPA.

This paper was presented in a workshop on Media and Post-Election Violence in Eastern Africa, organized by the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics; the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford; and the Centre for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication and Generously supported by DFID’s Africa Conflict Prevention Pool Fund Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – 15-16 December 2008. The author is a member of the SPLM Political Bureau. He can be reached at


Written by torit1955

January 5, 2009 at 5:32 am

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