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History matters

Sudan | With Sudan's elections coming up this weekend, a look back to understand the election debacle

In 1983 Sudan's Arab Islamist military dictator, Jaafar Numeiri, advanced his policy of national Islamization by enacting Sharia Law across the whole of Sudan. When the predominantly Christian and animist Southerners resisted, Khartoum responded with Islamic jihad. For the next 21 years the Southern Sudanese suffered constant aerial bombardment, scorched-earth raids enslavement, chemical weapons and government-made famines that killed up to 100,000 Southerners at a time.

In 2005 the South's political arm, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Islamic Government of Sudan (GoS) signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ending the war. According to the CPA a referendum on Southern self-determination must be held in January 2011, giving the government six years to "make unity attractive."

During the interim period, all the various opposition groups from across the country were to be brought into a truly comprehensive peace process through participation in a democratically elected representative government. The CPA mandated that elections be held by July 2009. Opposition groups planned to make a united stand against the regime and remove it democratically. The ultimate hope was that by January 2011, buoyed by the emergence of a united, secular, rights-respecting, democratic Sudan, the oil-rich South could be convinced to stay.

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Instead, the Arab Islamist regime in Khartoum has done everything in its power to obstruct the process-actively destabilizing whole regions like Darfur through conflict. Elections have been postponed twice and now are scheduled for April 11-13. But the process has been irredeemably compromised.

A preparatory census to determine legislative power in the national assembly, where constituencies will be weighted to local population, was rigged. As many as 4-5 million Southerners displaced by war into the north have been counted as Northerners. Though some three million non-Arab Darfuris have also been disenfranchised due to displacement, the population of Darfur has exploded, according to expert Eric Reeves, with a reported 322 percent increase in nomadic Arabs! Darfur's Janjaweed militias have not only ethnically cleansed whole towns of ethnic Darfuris, they have repopulated those towns with nomadic Arabs from neighboring Chad, Niger and Mali, issuing them Sudanese ID papers. Thus the regime has not only succeeded in robbing the Southerners of a large portion of their demographic base, it has totally changed the demography of Darfur-all to its own advantage.

The ruling Arab Islamist regime (the National Congress Party, formerly the National Islamic Front) intends not only to win the elections to legitimize its power, but to secure a 75 percent majority in the National Assembly. It could then achieve its main aim of amending the Constitution and re-writing-perhaps even tearing up-the CPA.

Citing "electoral irregularities," SPLM candidate Yassir Arman withdrew as a candidate for president on March 31, casting further doubt over the country's first fully-contested poll since 1986. As members of the SPLM-led National Consensus, a coalition of opposition parties, have started voicing their intent to join the SPLM in their boycott of the elections, President al-Bashir has started threatening to cancel the referendum on Southern self-determination.

The Carter Center, the only international observer mission allowed in Sudan, has called the election process "at risk on multiple fronts" and asked for more delay. Yet the Obama administration continues to voice support for Khartoum's supervision: U.S. envoy Scott Gration emerged from meetings with officials in Khartoum last Saturday (April 4) and declared that the polls will be as "free and fair as possible."

"We believe the election is not going to be free and fair, and it's not even going to be credible," said Robert Lawrence, policy director for the Save Darfur Coalition, comprising more than 190 faith-based and human rights advocates. "The last thing we want is for the results to legitimize the dictatorial rule of President al-Bashir."

-Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and a member of the Australian Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission; with additional reporting by Mindy Belz.

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