Shambolic election in Sudan will bring no relief to starving and brutalised country

The Times of London
Mvolo, Southern Sudan

Mandelina Nyi-bo folds her long limbs around the youngest of her six children, a nine-month-old girl, and talks about the day that her husband was killed.

“They came with guns to attack our village. They shot people randomly and killed many. My husband was among them,” she said.

After the survivors fled, the raiders — from a neighbouring cattle-herding community — destroyed their houses and grain stores.

Now Mrs Nyi-bo lives in a grass hut in a clearing in a forest that hides her and 7,000 others forced from their homes in recent months.

One of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars ended five years ago and Sudan’s transition to peace and democracy was supposed to be capped by three days of national elections starting tomorrow. But what is happening here looks little like either peace or democracy.

In the western region of Darfur the fighting that sputters on caused EU election observers to pull out this week, citing security fears. The withdrawal means that a free vote is impossible.

In the crushingly poor south, the kinds of clashes that killed Mrs Nyi-bo’s husband have slaughtered at least 2,000 in the past year, more than in Darfur during the same period.

In the north, analysts, activists and opposition politicians allege that President al-Bashir, 66, has rigged, intimidated and gerrymandered his way to a sure-fire victory.

The shambolic final days before the first multi-party election in 24 years have laid bare the unfixable divisions in Africa’s largest country.

The deepest fissure is between north and south, which fought a decades-long civil war in which 1.5 million died. The comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 gave the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) a kind of autonomy over the south, where Christian and traditional beliefs prevail. Its leader Salva Kiir is president of southern Sudan and Deputy President of all of Sudan.

Citing vote-rigging and the continued fighting in Darfur, the southern rebel army-turned-government boycotted the national presidential poll, withdrawing Mr al-Bashir’s most credible opponent. It will now contest parliamentary and governorship seats only in its southern heartland and two disputed oil-rich states in the centre of the country.

Other opposition groups in the north have followed suit, including the Umma party, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former Prime Minister, who won the last election in 1986 and was ousted three years later in Mr al-Bashir’s Islamist coup. The boycotts mean that Mr al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) will almost certainly win, but it will be a hollow victory.

Mr al-Bashir had hoped that a resounding win in a credible election would rehabilitate his reputation, legitimise his rule and defy world justice after the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted him last year for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur. But victory in a discredited election does none of these things. “Bashir is not going to get the legitimacy he craves out of this election,” said Leben Nelson Moro, a professor at the Centre for Peace and Development Studies at Juba University in the south.

Despite criticism from international election observers and human rights activists, the Sudanese President remained defiant. “The elections will be free and fair and clean and exemplary,” he told supporters at his final campaign rally in the north. “Elections are a religious duty.”

Weeks earlier he had threatened to “cut off the fingers” of international election observers who had raised doubts over the fairness of the coming poll.

Mr al-Bashir may be likely to win, but few in the south care. Outside Juba, the southern capital, this dirt-poor region seems frozen in time, its people facing other problems and other concerns.

In the place that Mrs Nyi-bo now calls home there is no food except a bitter wild root that is poisonous until it has been soaked for days. There is no water because the nearest borehole has run dry, no electricity, no school, no hospital, no road. Children run about barefoot and naked.

The only treatment for common diseases such as malaria, river blindness, diarrhoea or a mysterious local ailment known as “nodding disease” is dispensed from a plastic tent funded by Save the Children. The only “doctor” is Peter Akol, 31, a community health worker who fled here last month with his wife and two children when his ethnic Jur farming community was attacked by cattle herders seeking grazing land.

A horrifying condensation of the problems facing southern Sudan is what international aid agencies call the “scary statistics”: one in seven pregnant women dies in childbirth, 4.3 million people need emergency food handouts to keep starvation at bay, fewer than 2 per cent of children complete primary school, 85 per cent of adults can neither read nor write, 90 per cent live on less than $1 a day. Guns are common and violence between communities fighting for scarce resources is increasing.

Poverty, violence and hardship partly explain the muted response to what will be for many the first time they have voted. Kennet Korayi, a Sudanese civil society activist, has another explanation for the lack of interest. “It is a distraction from what people in the south really want: independence.”

A referendum on secession is due next January and if, as expected, southerners vote for independence, the south will become Africa’s newest country. Until then nothing else matters, not even the election of their enemy Mr al-Bashir as President.

“We need to get the south first then we can get development, governance, proper elections,” said Mr Moro. “We are poor, we have not got the peace dividends, the Government has not delivered but — no problem — we will wait for self-determination. This, now, is the closest we have ever come to having our freedom.”

How to hold a vote with an illiterate electorate and 12 ballot papers to fill
“We are not ready to conduct elections. Most of the voters cannot use a pen, so even to tick a paper is hard,” said James Mohandis, an independent parliamentary candidate running in Sudan’s elections, the nation’s first multi-party poll in 24 years.

In southern Sudan decades of war and lack of development have left 85 per cent of the population illiterate. Yet tomorrow they will go to the polls. For many, it will be the first time that they have voted and election observers are predicting chaos.

More than 16 million registered voters will choose from among 16,000 candidates belonging to 72 political parties vying for 1,841 parliamentary and executive seats.

With the country administratively divided between north and south, northerners will vote for a national president, national assembly members, state governors and state assembly members. Southerners will vote for the same and also for a president of the government of southern Sudan and separate southern assembly members. They will have 12 ballot papers in all.

It has been described as one of the world’s most complicated and time-consuming electoral systems and although voting is due to take place over three days even this may not be enough time.

Mvolo is a rural town six hours’ drive down a dirt road from Juba, the regional capital. It has some of the only brick buildings for miles around. Its first secondary school was built recently but no one is attending because there are no teachers.

Most of the people here are subsistence farmers but they barely subsist. Little is grown in the rocky soil. In village after village across the county, the only things for sale are charcoal burnt from the forests, gravel chipped from rocks by hand, and mangoes.

In the thatch-roofed and mud-walled church in the centre of Mvolo local election officials are learning how to run the vote. “People here cannot write,” said Godwill Baraka, 25, who is in charge of the training. “Even we officials are taking more than ten minutes to vote so if we have just three days? I don’t think it will happen.”

Wilson Abraham, 52, the Mvolo county commissioner, said: “People are enthusiastic to vote but how to vote is another question. Even I have not voted before.”

Added to the confusion is the violence in the western region of Darfur and disputes over the voters’ register that have led Waging Peace, an advocacy group, to warn of “a repeat of the [election] chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq”. The precedents are not good here. According to a study by the London-based research organisation, the Rift Valley Institute, no election in Sudan has ever been free or fair.

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