After Sudan vote, battle for unity begins

A day after controversial polls returned President Omar al-Bashir to power, Sudan on Tuesday turned its attention to its next challenge — forging unity in Africa’s largest country before it implodes.

Al-Bashir, who was declared winner on Monday after the country’s first multi-party general elections since 1986, wasted no time in sketching out his plans for the months to come.

“Our next battle will be the unity of Sudan,” al-Bashir told supporters of his National Congress Party at a celebratory rally in Khartoum late on Monday.

In a solemn address on television earlier, he had vowed that a promised referendum on the independence of south Sudan would go ahead as planned on January 2011.

For the residents of the vast impoverished but oil-rich south of the country, the five-day elections which ended on April 15 brought them one step closer to independence.

A peace deal signed in 2005 between the southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the government of Khartoum to end Africa’s longest running war, provided for the competitive polls and for the southern referendum on independence.

Now that elections are over, southern Sudanese will begin to focus efforts on their main goal, the referendum.

Despite winning 68% of the votes overall, al-Bashir garnered support from only 10% of south Sudan voters.

Instead southerners voted overwhelmingly for Yasser Arman, the SPLM presidential candidate, whose name appeared on ballot papers despite the fact he withdrew from the race ahead of polling day.

“Al-Bashir and his team will have to work hard to convince the southerners to choose unity. He could offer the south more autonomy if he wants to avoid the country’s split,” Sudanese political analyst Haydar Ibrahim told Agence-France Presse.

A national referendum commission has been promised to oversee the vote. Registration for voters in south Sudan and for southerners living in the north will take place in the coming months, during which time the north and the south will have to resolve all outstanding border demarcations.

“I fear that the National Congress Party will try in the coming months to delay the implementation of the peace process and of the referendum on technical grounds. It’s very dangerous,” Arman told a small group of foreign journalists.

Push for independence
A delay of the January referendum could push south Sudan towards a unilateral declaration of independence, which could affect the international community’s recognition of the new state, where nine million residents live in a territory the size of France.

The other concern is the referendum process itself after European and American observers said the elections had failed to reach international standards.

Nonetheless foreign governments said they were willing to work with Khartoum even if al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

“Even if we acknowledge the problems with the election, the priority remains to maintain relations in order to assure a good referendum,” a western diplomat told AFP.

“Everyone wants to avoid another civil war between the north and the south. But if the referendum is not free and fair, this will cause problems,” the diplomat said. — AFP

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