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Will Sudan's elections change anything?

- April 15, 2015

An official explains the voting process to a woman as she collects her ballot papers at a polling statio, on the second day of elections in north Khartoum April 14, 2015. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)
Monday, April 13, was the first day of Sudan’s latest national elections. Unlike the optimism that resulted a few weeks ago when the world witnessed Nigeria peacefully unseat a sitting president through the power of the ballot, Sudan is unlikely to surprise the cynics. Current President Omar al-Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) will remain in power.
Amidst an atmosphere of political repression and ongoing civil war on three different fronts, the majority of opposition parties have called for a boycott of the elections. Elections have even been postponed in districts in Southern Kordofan where there is an ongoing rebellion against the government.
What do these elections mean for Sudan? Unfortunately, Bashir staying in power maintains the status quo. And the status quo is not great, to put it mildly. In fact, the status quo is a bit worse than where we were even a year or two ago.
What about South Sudan?  This is an important question. South Sudan remains at an impasse in resolving its now 16-month-long civil war, despite efforts to revitalize the country. Sudan is a key player in that mediation process (and in the war, for that matter, but we’ll get to that later). Equally important, however, is the very fact that because in all likelihood the international community will remain focused on South Sudan, Khartoum will continue to wage its escalating wars against Darfur and the Two Areas (the term used to refer to the border states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile) with little attention paid.
I remember distinctly in 2008 when any event in Washington, D.C., that mentioned ‘Sudan’ used the term as synonymous with ‘Darfur.’ By this time, the conflict in Darfur had subsided from its 2003/2004 height and experts were urging the international community to pay attention to preventing violence in then southern Sudan in advance of the impending 2011 referendum on unity or secession.
Eventually, Washington and others did swing their focus to South Sudan – in a big way. And it remains there today, as the media play a bit of the blame game in the West’s role in South Sudan’s recent derailment. Only now, violence is on the upswing in Darfur and the Two Areas and these humanitarian crises barely get mentioned relative to the civil war in South Sudan. This is unfortunately not surprising if we look at the work in conflict studies that has demonstrated how grass-roots advocacy using easily digestible narratives and certain powerful NGOs can set the agenda and detract from policy approaches.
Ideally a way forward would recognize the humanitarian imperatives in both Sudan and South Sudan, and the intricate entangling of the violence between them as each side is accused of meddling in (and arming internal rebellions against) the other.
So where do we stand in Sudan?
Just over a year ago Bashir and the NCP agreed to begin a national dialogue process, bringing together opposition parties and rebel forces with the government to resolve issues at the heart of Sudan’s various conflicts. Such a national dialogue has long been demanded by Sudanese opposition and civil society as well as the international community to resolve the conflict between the disproportionately powerful core in Khartoum and marginalized populations on Sudan’s peripheries like Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. Only, instead of opening up the space for dialogue, immediately following Bashir’s January 2014 announcement the space for political freedoms rapidly closed. Khartoum jailed opposition party representatives, expanded the role of the nefarious national intelligence service (NISS) and eventually derailed even a pre-dialogue process.
So it is likely that the regime will continue its military campaign against the coalition of current rebel groups, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, with no clear end in sight.
And how will this election affect South Sudan?
Two major issues come to mind. First, Sudan (in the North) is one of three East African countries leading the IGAD mediation team tasked with negotiating a peace agreement between South Sudan’s primary warring parties (The parties at the IGAD negotiation table are Salva Kiir’s SPLM/A and Riek Machar’s SPLM/A In Opposition. However, the conflict in South Sudan certainly is not limited to these actors. There are many more rebel groups active in the country both related and unrelated to the primary standoff. Moreover it remains unclear how much control either Kiir or Machar have over various factions within their ranks.). Yet, Sudan is also providing support to various rebel groups within the South, helping to prolong the conflict. With elections maintaining the status quo this is unlikely to change.
Negotiation is one of the more ephemeral concepts studied by political scientists. Scholars have shown that both neutrality and non-neutrality can be assets in mediation. That said, there is a general agreement that parties to conflict must be ready and have incentives to come to the table and adhere to an agreement (often called ripeness). Khartoum’s playing of both sides helps convince the parties that they will have capabilities and resources to continue the war. Moreover, since Khartoum has long seen the benefits of stoking unrest in the south, they are unlikely to be a strong partner in pressuring President Salva Kiir and former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar to make the compromises necessary for a peace agreement. Further complicating matters, Khartoum is not the only non-biased regional player in the negotiations. Kenya and Ethiopia both have their own interests in South Sudan. Not to mention Sudan’s regional competitor, Uganda, which has had troops on the ground in South Sudan since the beginning of the conflict.)
Second, the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas have sent a flood of Sudanese refugees into South Sudan. At the same time the war in South Sudan has forced displacement of South Sudanese into Sudan. Much of this displacement has been from and to South Sudan’s Unity state.
With the presence of both rebel groups and civilian populations from Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, as the wars on either side drag on the dividing lines in Unity state are unlikely to be defined by the national issues at stake in either country’s wars. Instead, as different populations come into contact and compete with each other over resources and – as is often the case in this region – become engaged in a cycle of reprisal killings, conflict in this theater may take on both elements of the national agenda as well more local dimensions. We are already seeing migration sparking conflict within South Sudan as internally displaced populations who settled in Eastern Equatoria state have come into conflict with the non-migrant populations.
Efforts to resolve the conflict and build sustainable peace in the region would therefore be wise to remain cognizant that the causes of conflict in these areas may change as a result of experiences of war, like migration, not just the original cause of the war itself.
Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.