Nearly 25 years after thousands of South Sudanese villagers fled into the region's dense jungles, escaping the attacks of their own government and grieving the loss of loved ones cut down by brutal militias, the repatriated citizens of South Sudan are set to do something they could have barely imagined: vote in nationwide elections.
It's a historic moment for the whole nation: The April 11 contests would represent the country's first nationwide, multiparty elections in 24 years. At stake: the presidency of the nation, the presidency of South Sudan (a semi-autonomous region), and the selection of parliament members, state governors, and state assemblies. Also at stake: the stability and future of a battered nation ruled by an indicted war criminal running for reelection.
That President Omar al-Bashir's Khartoum-based government in the North has played a dominant role in organizing the elections-and quieting dissenters-leaves some election-watchers with little confidence that the contests will be free or fair. Southerners are particularly worried: The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended civil war with the North is set to expire next year. The officials elected in April will help oversee a critical process that includes a 2011 vote on Southern secession.
Problems with the upcoming elections surfaced early: Many Southerners and outside groups sharply criticized a 2008 nationwide census they said unfairly favored Khartoum. The South Sudan government said the census didn't accurately account for a large population of Southerners living in the North. IDP Action, a London-based organization advocating for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Africa, said the census also failed to accurately count IDPs in the country's war-ravaged western region of Darfur.
Other problems abound: The United Nations has called the Sudan elections some of the most complicated contests ever, with several different types of voting systems applying to different regions of the country. For the thousands of Sudanese who have never voted, the process could be overwhelming. For the many who are illiterate, it could be nearly impossible.
With polling places spread out through remote, impoverished areas, some worry that a lack of oversight could mean rampant corruption or voter intimidation. The U.S.-based Carter Center-one of the only groups of international election observers on-site-complained of a lack of voter education efforts and said logistical problems could hamper the country's ability to coordinate the contest.
Also problematic: Opposition candidates say Bashir's state-run media has allowed little access to airwaves. That means Bashir's candidacy has dominated. The government's National Press Council also summoned two editors of opposition-favoring newspapers to Khartoum, accusing them of breaking the law. "They asked us: how can you criticize the president?" editor Fayez Al-Sheik Al-Silaik told The Sudan Tribune.
Bashir has been particularly eager to silence talk about his indictment for war crimes. The Hague-based International Criminal Court indicted the president last year for crimes against humanity in the genocide that killed as many as 300,000 people in Darfur. Bashir also oversaw the bloody civil war with the South that killed some 2 million people.
Playing nice won't erase those memories, but Bashir seems to be trying: The leader signed a peace deal with the leading rebel faction in Darfur, normalized relations with neighboring Chad, and claimed he would allow the South to secede if that's what it wants. Those who understand Bashir are dubious about such claims, saying the leader infamous for breaking promises is greasing the wheels for reelection.
Eric Reeve, a Smith College professor and Sudan expert, says he's "immensely" discouraged about the upcoming elections. He believes the problems with corruption and media control make the results a foregone conclusion: "This election will inevitably return Bashir to the presidency and confer upon this indicted war criminal a veneer of legitimacy-all that the Khartoum regime could hope for."