Sudan: Where Elections Matter for the Wrong Reasons

04/09/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Sudan holds national elections in the coming days, including for the office of president. The result is a foregone conclusion, indeed to speak of the voting process that will occur as an "election" is deeply misleading. The present National Congress Party (NCP) regime has gone to great lengths to predetermine the results, particularly the re-election of President Omar al-Bashir. It was al-Bashir who nominally led the military coup of June 1989 that brought the National Islamic Front to power, although geopolitical tact produced the re-designation as the NCP. But the actors are the same, the men who wield real power are largely the same, although more of the top leaders come from the military and intelligence community. If there is a difference between this electoral farce and that of 2010, it is that many more preparations have been taken to ensure victory, and that this victory have a specious sheen of legitimacy.

But leaked minutes from a meeting on August 31, 2014 make clear the extent of the political machinations that are the real story behind these elections. Ibrahim Ghandour, recently invited by the Obama State Department to Washington for negotiations, offered some impressively specific comments on his multifarious achievements. They include bribes, voter manipulation, fraud, and the threat of violence.

But there are other reasons that the impending elections will be meaningless and can do nothing to reflect the will of the Sudanese people. There are three areas of the country where there is simply too much violence to conduct elections: Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Indeed, ballots destined for South Kordofan were recently seized by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N), a measure of their determination to show the world they will not sit idly by while tyranny perpetuates itself.

And they are not alone: in December 2014, a coalition of opposition groups and forces, including the SPLM/A-N signed the "Sudan Call," a political declaration that urged voters to boycott the election, describing it as "façade intended to falsify the national will and legitimise the regime."

Radio Dabanga, our only reliable source on the situation on the ground in Darfur, reported (April 7, 2015):

The Coordination Office of the Darfur Displaced and Refugees Association has called for a nation-wide boycott of the general election scheduled for 13 - 15 April. "We call on all the Sudanese not to cast their vote next week, and to stage mass demonstrations instead, in protest against the rigged election and the brutal regime in Khartoum."

Boycotts are being staged, some quietly, in many locations around the country, and the NCP regime is doing its own part in attenuating the voter list and candidates. Sudan Tribune, which does the best job of reporting broadly on news from greater Sudan, filed a dispatch on April 7, 2015 noting that "Sudan's ruling National Congress Party has dismissed all its members running as independents in next Monday's general elections."

It's still not clear who, besides the Arab League, will monitor the election. A consortium of East African countries known as IGAD says it intends to, but IGAD is short on capacity and finds itself overwhelmed with involvement in efforts to halt the civil war in South Sudan. Any presence during the elections would be skeletal at best. For its part, the Arab League will ratify the elections; but this means little, given the organization's history of antipathy toward fair elections and its mindless solidarity with Khartoum.

Why should we care?

Why should we care that the world is witnessing another electoral travesty, a thoroughly grotesque version of the democratic process? The main reason is that the regime's "victory" may give certain Western countries a reason for warmer relations with Khartoum, responding to the sheen of legitimacy that even profoundly fraudulent elections will produce. The U.S. in particular may be tempted to turn a blind eye to the illegitimacy of these elections, for the Obama administration still wants closer cooperation with Khartoum on counter-terrorism and wants access to its massive, wildly expensive new embassy in Khartoum, designed to be the "listening post" for North Africa. Right now, the regime is saying no, and the leaked minutes reveal deep hostility to the U.S.

But a recent visit by Steven Feldstein, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, may have had all these issues front and center in talks. Feldstein's comments on departure suggested that he and the U.S. credit, at least partially, the farce Khartoum has called the "National Dialogue," a supposedly broad-based effort to provide greater political openness and the basis for a reformed, more democratic Sudan. But the "National Dialogue" is distinguished mainly by how few have joined; an overwhelming number of opposition groups, of all sorts, believe this is just more trickery by the regime, designed to give only the appearance of greater political legitimacy. Still, Feldstein mentioned the phrase twice in his brief departing remarks, and one can all too easily imagine this administration turning a blind eye to Sudan's ghastly realities in order to further counter-terrorism cooperation.

While he was still a senator, Russ Feingold made a particularly well-informed assessment of what the U.S. was getting from this putative "cooperation." Since he sat on the Intelligence Committee and also chaired the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was uniquely positioned to assess the trade-offs with Khartoum that began under the Bush administration, and have continued under the Obama administration. In this trade-off, Khartoum provides counter-terrorism "intelligence" and in exchange the U.S. will adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward Khartoum, despite its ongoing policies of genocidal counter-insurgency. Feingold made clear his own skepticism about Khartoum's behavior in cooperating on counter-terrorism:

I take serious issue with the way the report [on international terrorism by the U.S. State Department] overstates the level of cooperation in our counterterrorism relationship with Sudan, a nation which the U.S. classifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. A more accurate assessment is important not only for effectively countering terrorism in the region, but as part of a review of our overall policy toward Sudan, including U.S. pressure to address the ongoing crisis in Darfur and maintain the fragile peace between the North and the South. (Statement by Senator Russell Feingold, May 1, 2009)

Everything has borne out Feingold's assessment of six years ago, and yet the U.S. continues to woo the regime. And armed with the "legitimacy" conferred by these elections, this regime will certainly continue to conduct campaigns of ethnically-targeted destruction in the Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions of Sudan. Thirteen-year-old girls will continue to be raped; bombs wills continue to fall on purely civilian targets; villages of non-Arab/African populations will be destroyed because they are perceived as supporting the rebels Khartoum can't defeat militarily; and desperately needed humanitarian relief will continue to be denied to well over one million people at acute risk.

Let us hope that the Obama administration understands these elections for what they are. They certainly should not confer the "legitimacy" that the regime has so often spoken of in its secret meetings as the ultimate goal of their electoral charade. But "should" is a word the Obama administration has had a difficult time understanding in its dealings with Sudan. And the sense of an imperative, tragically, is much more likely to come from the Obama administration intelligence community than from those who care about the lives and livelihoods of the Sudanese people.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past sixteen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 - 2012 (September 2012)