August 3, 2011 | World Defense Review

Sudan’s Elections: What Now?

With all but the cynically duplicitous, willfully blind, or invincibly ignorant acknowledging that the elections in Sudan last week were more of a farce than a demonstration of the Sudanese people’s democratic sovereignty, the question of what happens next carries extraordinary significance, not only for the future of the benighted country, but for the security of its neighbors and the broader interests of other members of the international community.

Although, as I pointed out here two weeks ago, the fix in favor of Sudanese ruler Umar Hassan al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) was in long before the strongest opposition group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which primarily represents the largely Christian black Africans of South Sudan, and several other parties boycotted the critical parts of election, the results are just now emerging of the “landslide victory” projected for the incumbent, notwithstanding his indictment last year by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. However, with the European Union election observers noting “significant deficiencies against international standards” and the Carter Center reporting that “the elections will fall short of meeting international standards and Sudan’s obligations for genuine elections,” the very legitimacy that Bashir sought may well be denied him, notwithstanding desperate efforts by the African Union and Arab League observers to put the best spin on the exercise. Noting the assessment of more credible observers that the elections did not meet international standards, the White House released a statement declaring:

Political rights and freedoms were circumscribed throughout the electoral process, there were reports of intimidation and threats of violence in South Sudan, ongoing conflict in Darfur did not permit an environment conducive to acceptable elections, and inadequacies in technical preparations for the vote resulted in serious irregularities. The United States regrets that Sudan’s National Elections Commission did not do more to prevent and address such problems prior to voting.


Of course, as many of the preliminary reports from the poll watchers are already noting, the presidential, parliamentary, gubernatorial, and state legislative elections across Sudan and the additional vote for the regional government of South Sudan in the ten southern states are but preludes to the referendum which, according to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ending the decades of civil war between the Arab-dominated Muslim north of the country and its black, largely Christian, south, will allow southerners to decide whether they wish to remain a part of Sudan or to form an independent country of their own. That plebiscite must now take place by January 9, 2011. Thus the temptation, already evident in much of international reaction to the multiple deficiencies of last week’s poll is to obsess narrowly on fixing procedural shortcomings—the White House statement, for example, reaffirmed that the United States remains “committed to working with the international community to support implementation of outstanding elements of the CPA and ensure that the referendum happens on time and that its results are respected”—while ignoring far more significant substantive issues.

While certainly the integrity of the referendum process needs to be safeguarded, in many respects they are now secondary. There is little doubt that a free and fair referendum on self-determination in South Sudan would result in an overwhelming vote for secession. Extensive focus group research reported last year by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs also indicates that the Ngok Dinka population in the oil-rich border territory Abyei would vote to join South Sudan if, as required by a corollary to the CPA, they are consulted. Consequently, although there are a number of reasons why a peaceful and unambiguous vote to secede is highly desirable, there is no reason to suppose that alternative routes to the break-up of Sudan – including a unilateral declaration of independence by the Government of South Sudan – would be any less a reflection of the political will of the peoples of South Sudan. Given the long history of marginalization and violence which has been their lot since even before Sudan’s independence in 1956, it is rather hard to blame the South Sudanese to want to dissolve the bonds which have hitherto shackled them to Khartoum. And, as I argued in the online edition of The National Interest on the eve of the recent poll, the electoral mess itself has become yet another bone of contention driving the two sides apart.

So, instead of wasting precious time and limited political and material resources on perfecting a referendum which, if it takes place at all – Bashir, it should be recalled, threatened to renege on this commitment when the SPLM boycott of the presidential election took the shine off his planned electoral triumph – will merely confirm what is already known, the focus needs to shift to making the well-nigh inevitable split between north and south as smooth as possible. What good, after all, would it be to stage a perfect plebiscite on January 9th and have nothing prepared for January 10th?

Of course, this counsel will go against the both the ingrained reluctance of the members of the African Union to contemplate the redrawing of colonial borders and the professional inclination of many diplomats to focus on more easily-managed procedural steps than hard-to-control substantive issues. But some questions – including, among others, the definitive demarcation of the boundary between the north and the south (that is, between what will become the rump of Sudan and the nascent independent South Sudan), the status of Abyei and other contentious border areas and populations, any sharing of the revenue from the country’s significant petroleum production (most of the reserves of which are in the south), and the route by which South Sudan intends to bring its oil to market – cannot be deferred any longer, at least not without running the risk of exacerbating the looming conflict.

The resolution of these issues – and, thus, the minimization of any potential conflict – will ultimately depend on the Sudanese parties themselves. However, the members of the international community also have a stake in the outcome. The United States has long supported the peoples of South Sudan and it was President George W. Bush’s special envoy (and later ambassador to the United Nations), former Sen. John Danforth, who brokered the CPA. And, if conflict erupts again, it will be the Obama administration – already widely criticized by both left and right for the maladroit diplomacy of its special envoy, retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration – that will come under intense pressure to “do something.” While the People’s Republic of China has been on of the Khartoum regime’s staunchest partners, perhaps even more important to Beijing is the oil which it obtains from Sudan, which now accounts for nearly 10 percent of its imports. About the last thing China needs is the potential loss of access to the Sudanesereserves at a time when, with the global economy just beginning to recover, supplies will be harder to replace. Likewise, almost all of Sudan’s neighbors – Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, and Uganda – either have challenges enough of their own or are on the cusp of making major strides and do not need to renewed civil conflict that could metastasize into a regional conflagration (the ninth neighbor, Eritrea, is a regional spoiler). Thus Washington and Beijing might find it in mutually beneficial to pursue, in cooperation with these “frontline” states, a “final status” strategy aimed at minimizing the shocks from what will soon be a seismic shift in the geopolitical map of northeastern Africa.

J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington,, D.C.

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