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Fragile statehood

Sudan ahead of elections

by Christian Jahn
Sudan’s people will go to the polls in April. In January 2011, less than a year later, the Southern Sudan will probably hold a referendum on independence. Both events will occur in times marked by a catastrophic humanitarian and security situation. Moreover, the political environment has changed. In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President. Experts warn against high hopes: elections alone cannot turn a country into a democracy. [ By Christian Jahn ]

The people of Sudan are about to redistribute a whole range of roles. In April, they are due to elect a new president for the whole of Sudan, a president for Southern Sudan, governors for the 25 states of the North and South as well as members of the National Assembly in Khartoum and the state legislatures.

Furthermore, when the transitional period set out in the 2005 peace agreement comes to an end in January 2011, the Southern Sudanese will vote in an independence referendum on whether they want to remain a part of Sudan. It is expected that the majority will vote for independence. Whether those in power in Khartoum will accept that is questionable: most of the country's oil resources are located in Southern Sudan. Khartoum has a keen interest in retaining access to those resources.

Under the terms of the peace accord signed in 2005, the North is obliged to respect a possible secession. But before, a lot of issues need to be resolved. The currently open border between North and South and the distribution of oil revenues in the event of secession are but two examples.

The conditions are challenging to say the least. The humanitarian situation is dire and even international aid workers are not safe from attack. What is more, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir – the first ever for a ruling head of state. He is indicted on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes.

The UN Security Council had tasked the ICC in 2005 with examining the events in Darfur. Under the UN resolution, Sudan is legally required to cooperate with the ICC. So far, however, the government has refused to do so.

Disastrous security situation

Sudan is the largest country in Africa and plagued by more poverty and distress than virtually any other. Darfur is a battleground for rebel groups, the Sudanese military and armed militias. Since the start of the conflict in 2003, the UN reckons that more than 300,000 people have lost their lives. 2.7 million more are internally displaced and hundreds of thousands have fled to Chad and the Central African Republic.

The fighting has died down but the security situation remains desperate. UN and African Union peacekeepers are very hard pressed to protect the civilian population. The Sudanese government largely leaves the task of protecting and meeting the needs of the people of Darfur to international aid agencies but makes no effort to keep relief workers safe. Attacks by bandits are reported with increasing frequency. Meanwhile, the government continues to wage war against a host of rebel groups.

In 2009, there were even more deaths by violence in Southern Sudan than in Darfur – at least 360,000 people were forced to flee their homes. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a rebel group from Northern Uganda which in the past years increasingly operated from Congo and the Central African Republic too – repeatedly advances into Southern Sudan, burning down villages and abducting children and women. There are also frequent tribal conflicts that go beyond the usual quarrels over grazing and water rights.

As the date of the referendum approaches, the tensions between North and South are also increasing. The South accuses the North of deliberately aggravating the conflicts by supplying arms to diverse groups. The North scoffs at the South Sudanese transitional government for being unable to protect its own people.

No peace in sight

Since independence in 1956, Sudan has not known lasting peace. Today, the population is of 39 million. In 1989, Bashir, a colonel at the time, seized power in a military coup. He has ruled the country ever since along ­Islamic fundamentalist lines. Africa’s longest-running civil war – spanning 22 years – was fought between the government in the North and the rebels in the South. It ended in January 2005 with the signing of the peace accord. A year later, peace agreements were concluded for the regions in the east and also for Darfur – although not all the rebel groups in Darfur signed the peace deal.

Large numbers of internally displaced persons in Sudan depend on foreign aid. For the South, the longed-for peace dividend is hardly in sight. Infrastructures have been destroyed. More than two million refugees have returned to Southern Sudan since 2005 but many are worse off there than in the camps in the neighbouring countries. There are not enough schools and teachers, and people have no access to basis healthcare.

Child and maternal mortality rates in Southern Sudan are among the highest in the world. And there is no prospect of a rapid remedy by international development cooperation. The problem is not lack of money – the international community has made funds available through various financing instruments – but the speed of its deployment. The sheer number of financing instruments slows down the implementation of pro­jects; there is no coordination and too much red tape.

What is more, the transitional government responsible for the South's ­development since 2005 is short of trained personnel at all political and administrative levels. More than 20 years of civil war has left its mark.

Missed opportunities

Bashir considers the conflict in Darfur an internal problem. With the issue of the arrest warrant, however, the pressure increased: all signatories to the Rome Statute – 30 of which are in Africa – are obliged to surrender Bashir if he sets foot on their soil. So far, however, Bashir has managed to keep out of danger by forging expedient political alliances.

This assessment is confirmed by the findings of an analysis by the International Crisis Group – an independent think tank – published in July 2009 (Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC. Africa Report No. 152). The research shows that Bashir and his party – the National Congress Party (NCP) – have so far always managed to protect their interests. At the same time, no one has ever been made accountable for the crimes in Darfur.

Bashir and the NCP have succeeded in making sure that issues of justice and responsibility are kept out of all peace agreements. So now, with the eyes of the whole world on the elections and observance of the peace accord, the International Crisis Group sees a golden opportunity to call Bashir and other perpetrators to account. The think tank also advises against making any short-term concessions to Bashir and the NCP – and it believes a UN Security Council resolution suspending the arrest warrant against Bashir for a year should only be considered if meaningful conditions are attached.

Be careful about making concessions

Everything hinges on the elections in April and next year’s referendum. But as well as being wary of making concessions to the government in Khartoum, it is important to appreciate that the elections will not automatically result in more democracy in Sudan. Even today, local and national decisions are still predominantly made along ethnic lines.

In his latest book "Wars, guns and votes. Democracy in dangerous places" (2009), Paul Collier shows that elections in post-conflict states do not necessarily bring about more democracy. To the contrary, they may actually increase the risk of a further outbreak of war. It is important, therefore, to carefully study the findings from other post-conflict states. Elections should not be held at any price.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, one thing is important for the population: action to ensure that at least basic needs are met as quickly as possible. The government in the South needs support to improve conditions for economic development. During the civil war, a great deal more was destroyed there than in the North.

Co-determination by the people means involving local populations in decisions. The international community needs to have more patience for processes of change in Sudan than in other developing countries and it needs to monitor them closely. Most important of all is the need to help Southern Sudan’s young government to create new institutions and to improve life for the people. At the same time, action is needed to prevent people growing accustomed to foreign aid and failing to develop their own skills. In post-conflict situations like this, the approach of "help for self-help" requires a lot of stamina.