Hasty elections a danger for Sudan

COMMENT

After a bitter struggle by the people of Sudan to unshackle themselves from three decades of the brutal Omar al-Bashir regime, the revolution in Sudan has arrived at a crossroads.

On Monday, the transitional military council that took power after Bashir was removed finally showed itstrue colours to the world. The way it brutally and ruthlessly dismantled protest sites, and the unilateral declaration by the military that it would cast aside negotiations with the umbrella civil society movement — the Declaration Forces of Change and Freedom — and its calls for elections within nine months, area rude but unsurprising awakening.

As of Thursday morning, the death toll from this crackdown had exceeded 100, with widespread reports that soldiers and paramilitary forces were also responsible for sexual assaults against protesters.

The military’s call for swift elections is a bold gamble that could prove disastrous for the future of Sudan. There is a likelihood of military officers using the elections to lend a veneer of legitimacy to military rule by leaving the barracks to participate in a choreographed and rigged election. But, the risk is that the call for elections might eventually and unfortunately resonate with some in the African Union.

But this is a perilous prospect, for several reasons. First, this has been a people-led revolution, through relentless and adamant peaceful protest and civil disobedience. The rejection of the military council’s takeover, both domestically by the protesters and internationally from all quarters, is a clear message that the military’s role should be limited to maintaining order and peace, not to rule. The military has neither the legitimacy nor the mandate to call for elections.

Second, Sudan has just emerged from the rule of a regime that, in over three decades, has decimated the social institutions necessary to create the conditions for free and fair elections, including the press and civil society. Elections are not the same thing as democracy. Time is needed to begin long processes such as security-sector reform, so that security institutions are accountable to the public and elections don’t simply replace the head of the deeply corrupt economic system left behind by the old regime.

The very militia that committed unspeakable atrocities in Darfur, the Rapid Support Forces, are still at large and in charge. Elections within nine months will only further polarise an already deeply divided country and entrench the grip on power of the previous regime.

Experience in transitions from civil war to democracy in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo proves that nine months to prepare for elections is a joke — one that, if taken seriously, will have cruel and irreversible consequences for the people of Sudan. Military takeovers and hastily organised elections are recipes for disaster in Africa, and are no substitute for peace-building and institutional and constitutional reforms to resolve the root causes of political crises.

There is a need for a transition period, led by civilians, whose mandate will include creating a proper electoral register and preparing for elections in which non-civilian forces will be barred from participating. This was the case in post-Taylor Liberia. The military’s proposal is a band-aid solution that tries to sweep under the carpet decades of brutal civil war, economic mismanagement and marginalisation that, at its peak, played out through the horrors of Darfur and also resulted in the secession of South Sudan.

The prospects for instability are very real for a country still grappling with armed conflicts and devastating humanitarian situations in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where fifth columnist groups such as the Janjaweed militia may re-emerge to scupper the revolution. 

The military in Sudan is deploying what is referred to as “confounding tactics” in counter-revolutionary doctrine. Its forces are using the call for elections to make it seem that they are promoting the will of the people, when they are actually engineering a situation that ensures their continued hold on power.

It also puts the opposition in a position where they can be made to look bad for standing against elections — because why would anyone be against elections?

The AU, the Arab League and the United Nations must take a firm and unequivocal stance on the matter.

Professor PLO Lumumba is a Kenyan lawyer and a pan-Africanist

Plo Lumumba
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