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Sudan expert explains intracacies of upcoming elections

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:24 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Q&A with Douglas Johnson, author of “The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars.”

ColumbiaMissourian.com: Tell us a little about your background.

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Douglas Johnson: I am St. Louis born and bred. My mother's family came from northern Missouri, and my father's family came from southeast Missouri. My mother's father was a graduate of the University of Missouri in Columbia. I currently live in England. I am the author of the book "The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars" (Indiana University Press).  I served on the Abyei Boundaries Commission in 2005, whose report was rejected by Bashir and the NCP, and which is currently the subject of arbitration in a separate court in the Hague.

CM: Have you ever heard of Abdullahi Ibrahim, the MU history professor who has announced that he'll be running for president of Sudan?

DJ: I don't know him personally, but I believe I have met him occasionally at Sudan studies conferences and the like. (His hometown), Atbara, is the rail center of the Sudan.  The rail workers union was very strong, and the Sudanese Communist Party had a very strong presence in the union.  From your description it would seem that he has strong family links to both the rail workers union and the CP. The Communists were among the secular and "progressive" forces behind the 1969 coup that brought Nimeiri to power — as a figurehead only, or so they thought. The Communist Party then tried to push him aside in 1971, but failed.  A number of prominent Communists were executed by Nimeiri, and others were imprisoned or sent to internal exile.

CM: Why exactly does he have no chance of winning?

DJ: The Presidential elections are going to be fought according to the public profile of the presidential candidates and the strength of party organization.  The National Congress Party (NCP) at this point will stand behind Bashir and will try to make this a national referendum on the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment.  Bashir and the NCP will therefore be pitching their campaign as a defense of the Sudan's sovereignty against "Western interference," and opponents will likely be portrayed as betraying the Sudan if they offer criticism of Bashir.

Past Northern politicians with a high profile, such as Sadiq al-Mahdi (leader of one faction of the Umma Party, and the Prime Minister whom Bashir overthrew in 1989), or Hassan al-Turabi (the former ideological leader of the NCP whom Bashir has imprisoned on different occasions), will not have a sufficiently strong party apparatus behind them to canvass or fund a national campaign.

Without a party organization on which to base a campaign, without funding to run a campaign, without media outlets to get the message out, no other candidate has a chance of winning.

CM: Why won't the February 2010 elections be fairly run?

DJ: There are a number of question marks over the elections: General electoral laws were passed last July, but as far as I understand it, more specific laws have yet to be passed.  Certainly laws that are necessary for a free and fair election — allowing more freedom of the press, curbing the state security — have not been enacted. The current laws are repressive, and the state security service continues to close down newspapers and arrest journalists for printing reports unfavorable to, or critical of the NCP and Bashir.  Opposition groups have access to newspapers, but these have limited circulation.  They don't have equal access to television or radio, as these are state/party controlled.  Internet sites are also monitored and blocked by state security.

An electoral commission has been appointed but is not yet functioning.  It is still working out internal rules of procedure and a budget.  If the North-South Boundary Committee sets any precedent, this could take months, leaving little time to get on with the main work.

We will have to see first the content of the election laws, and second, how they are implemented before we can declare the elections fair.

Third, ever since the ICC arrest warrant was issued, state security has declared that support for the ICC against Bashir amounts to treason. Sudanese suspected of passing information to the ICC have been arrested, and some have been tried for treason.  Security forces have shot students demonstrating in favor of the ICC at Dilling University in Southern Kordofan, and they have beaten students demonstrating in favor of the ICC at the University of Khartoum. At the latter they armed gangs of NCP supporters with iron bars to beat the demonstrating students.  The head of state security, Salah Abdallah Gosh (who has personally cooperated with the CIA in the "war on terror"), has announced that anyone supporting the ICC will have their hands, feet and other organs cut off.  Difficult to mount a campaign against the president in such an atmosphere…

Room for foreign governments — especially the so-called "guarantors" of the CPA (the U.S., U.K., Norway, EU) — to ensure free and fair elections is limited.  They have shown themselves incapable of ensuring the implementation of other contentious provisions of the CPA — such as the Abyei Protocol, transparency in the disbursement of oil revenues, the demarcation of the North-South border or maintaining the cease-fire.  They have failed to broker a peace agreement in Darfur.  And now that they are accused of trying to undermine Sudanese sovereignty through the ICC, part of Bashir's election campaign will be aimed against the international community.

CM: Does anyone but al-Bashir stand a chance of winning? Is there any kind of opposition building internally against him?

DJ: There is internal opposition to Bashir, both in the North and in the South, but it is regional and fragmented.  The only party that has a chance of defeating the NCP or Bashir is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  They do have branches in different parts of the North; they do have a platform that can be put up against the NCP.  If they had an electoral strategy that sought to make regional alliances with other marginalized parties and groups in Darfur, the East, the displaced persons around Khartoum and dissatisfied groups in the far North, they could just pull off an election victory.

But there are three obstacles to this:  

1) The SPLM is not a political party and has not yet transformed itself into a political party.  It doesn't have a party organization to match the NCP.  It doesn't know how to run or control elections (the NCP does).  

2) The SPLM would have to decide that its main political goal was to become the majority political party in a united Sudan, whereas right now the majority of members of the SPLM, who are Southerners, are more inclined to work for an independence vote for the South in the 2011 referendum.  It is probably too late for them to come out with a credible national policy and strategy for the national elections.  

3) The late John Garang had the national public profile and the charisma to have attracted a large enough share of the presidential vote in the country to defeat Bashir.  In fact, many of the Northern opposition groups had declared that they would support Garang for the presidency in order to get Bashir and the NCP out of power. Garang's successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, does not have this sort of national profile or support. He is seen as a Southern leader, concerned primarily with the problems confronting the Southern Sudan, more than a national leader. His own attitude towards the unity of the Sudan is ambivalent, whereas Garang was the architect of the idea of a united "New Sudan" based on a secular government, universal citizenship rights and devolution of powers from the central government to the regions (whether he would have implemented all or any of that, had he lived, is another question).

There is the outside chance that the NCP itself might split and put up another presidential candidate before elections in February 2010. That would depend on whether Bashir was seen to have become too "toxic" to support.  Right now, the majority of the NCP leadership seems to have decided that their own survival depends on Bashir's survival; thus the rallying around him in the face of the ICC.  However, in time, it is possible that the majority of the NCP leadership might decide that their own personal survival depends on distancing themselves from Bashir.  

CM: What conditions would have to exist in Sudan for free and fair elections to take place?

DJ: What is needed in order for there to be free and fair elections throughout the country is the dismantling of the state security apparatus (very unlikely), the passing of liberal election laws, the creation of an independent election commission that oversees the fair application of the election laws, the liberalization of the press and media laws and the end of intimidation of journalists, open access by opposition parties to national TV and radio broadcasting (which I don't think has every really happened in the Sudan) and the invitation of active international monitoring of the election process from the drawing up of constituency boundaries, through the registration of voters, to the counting of votes (international election monitors in Africa habitually show up only on polling day and are absent during the important lead up to voting).

The NCP, and Bashir, see the coming elections as their means of legitimizing and consolidating their controlling position in the national government of the Sudan, so it is unlikely that they will be willing to relax their hold on the conduct of elections to allow any other outcome.

CM: Do you think a person like Ibrahim will be in any danger upon his return? It seems like suppression is the stance toward those who dissent in Sudan, not tolerance.

DJ: If he has been returning to the Sudan in the past year, and has maintained some sort of public profile without attracting retribution, he will probably come to no harm.  But in the current climate of whipping up opposition to the ICC, he could get into trouble if any public criticism of Bashir was deemed to be in support of the ICC.  At the very least he might find that his newspaper columns get spiked.


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