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A Crucial Year Ahead for Sudan

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The rebels gathered their technicals - pickups mounted with machine guns and rocket launchers - before dawn. More than 100, engines revving, surrounded the army base deep in Darfur's northern desert. There was not much of a fight. The government soldiers simply turned and ran, leaving behind guns, bombs and mugs of steaming tea.

By the time I arrived a few days later the rebels had taken their pick of the AK-47s and mortar rounds. They left the only fatality rotting in a ditch. The smell of the dead soldier wafted through the town of Kornoi. Unburied and forgotten.

The army returned a few weeks later in force and the rebels gave up their conquest just as easily as they had taken it. This was the war of 2009: A to and fro between rivals. A series of feints and boasts, all far beyond the gaze of the outside world.

Another Forgotten War

That was my most recent trip to Darfur, slipping across the Chadian border in a rebel column to avoid the bureaucracy, minders and rules that prevent journalists seeing the conflict for themselves. The war I found was at odds with the popular perception.

On a continent of forgotten wars, there was always supposed to be something different about Darfur. This was the first genocide of the twenty-first century. A slaughter of the innocents. The land's African farmers were being wiped out by Arab raiders - the dreaded Janjaweed - doing the bidding of an evil Islamist empire in Khartoum.

The timing couldn't have been more fortunate for the humanitarian agencies desperately trying to raise funds and awareness. Ten years after Rwanda's genocide, politicians, movie stars and a huge array of activists lined up to do their bit.

Headline after headline urged the world to act: Send in peacekeepers, enforce no-fly zones or boycott Sudan's allies. Only nothing much changed. The war moved from one act to the next, settling into a low-level insurgency that rumbles on today. Meanwhile, we watched Congo's complex mishmash of rebellions flare once more. Then Somalia's pirates dominated the world's coverage of Africa.

Darfur faded into the background.

The Crisis Continues
It has not gone away. The slaughter of the early years may have ebbed, but the survivors still live in cramped aid camps. Tribal tensions, within and between Arab groups, are a constant source of bloodshed. Banditry is rife. The joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping force has endured a bloody 2009.

Where once Darfur had been different, today it is achingly familiar. Complex, miserable and messy. Africa is not short of similar conflicts that grumble on for years, unresolved and out of sight.

We cannot afford to let Darfur slip away.

The next 12 months are a crucial period for the whole of Sudan. Twice voters will go to the polls in make or break moments with the potential to cement slow-running reforms or tip Africa's biggest nation into the abyss.

Two Crucial Tests
Elections are due in April. At best, they are an opportunity to ease Khartoum along the path of democratic reform, strengthening opposition parties and forcing President Omar al-Bashir to ease his grip on power. At worst, his National Congress Party (NCP) could rig the vote and use the spurious electoral legitimacy as the basis for a fresh round of repression.
Already international observers have expressed concern about an incomplete registration process. Opposition parties complain about a census they say overstates the size of pro-NCP populations, distorting the allocation of assembly seats. With four months to go, there is plenty of work still to be done in preparing the ground for free and fair elections. The next test comes in January 2011, when Southern Sudan must decide on independence. This referendum is the final step in a peace deal signed in January 2005, ending a decades old civil war that dwarfs Darfur in casualties.
Southerners will almost certainly vote in favour of breaking away. With an autonomous administration already riddled with corruption and split by tribal rivalries, the danger is the South will begin life as a failed state.

A disputed referendum will plunge north and south into a new war.

Yet all is not lost. International pressure holds the key to success of both ballots. Many thought a peace deal between north and south was impossible before it was signed, under pressure from the US. So too the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Darfur. In the same way, a legislative overhaul, a cessation of hostilities in Darfur and reform in the South to enable the two votes to proceed could be achieved so long as the international community does not give up on Sudan.

Darfur's war has been one of the better documented African wars. Until now. In recent months it has slipped off the world agenda. The tragedy is that Sudan faces two votes with a real risk the country could implode, sucking in neighbours and igniting wars on a new scale.
The decisions, the elections and the ballot papers are for the people of Sudan. We, though, have a vital role in making sure the conditions are in place for democracy to prosper.
This is not the time to forget Sudan.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Irish Times. Rob Crilly spent five years reporting from Africa and his book, Saving Darfur, will be published in February.