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A Troubled Post-Election Darfur: What Did You Expect?

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Elections in Sudan concluded last month with indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir taking 68% of the vote. With his leading competitors deciding to boycott the elections, Bashir's victory was never in doubt and, for many reasons, the international community could do nothing but assent implicitly or explicitly to the outcome. The man responsible for the heinous crimes in Darfur is critical to implementing the final stages of the North/South peace agreement, signed in 2005, that provides Southern Sudanese the opportunity to secede from Bashir's rule in 2011. As troubled an experience as it has been for the marginalized communities of the South, no such silver lining as the referendum exists for those mired in the chaos that remains Darfur.

As such, it is important intellectually and morally for all interested parties to be clear that these elections were a disaster for efforts to achieve lasting peace, protection and justice in Darfur. How else can you interpret not only Bashir's victory but that of notorious janjaweed leader Musa Hilal? This poster-child for atrocities in Darfur won a parliamentary seat and, presumably, the constitutional immunities that come with it. So much for Hilal, Bashir, or any other perpetrators being held accountable anytime soon.

Yet, some observers noted a minor success in the fact that there were no major outbreaks of violence in Darfur during the elections. However, this analysis ignores the Sudanese government's ongoing military offensive in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, home to an estimated one million people, and for which conveniently not one parliamentary seat was allocated. United Nations/African Union peacekeepers have been denied access to most of the conflict afflicted communities - where gender-based crimes and significant humanitarian gaps have been reported.

Furthermore, the UN Secretary General last month stated that tribal clashes in March alone accounted for at least 182 fatalities - the highest number of casualties in a single month during the UN/AU peacekeeping mission's presence. In addition to this fighting, rebel commanders in West Darfur reported government aerial bombardments beginning a week after the election process had concluded. So it seems that the seven-year old conflict between the Sudanese government and rebels, with its many facets including the weaponization of most tribes, continues unabated - and prevents millions of displaced people from returning home.

This security situation - both the daily insecurities of Darfur, and the omnipresence of Sudanese security agents - allowed for the complete rigging of elections in Darfur. The Carter Center yesterday reported that its observers were not allowed to monitor the full vote tabulation in West Darfur because of security concerns and, even more alarmingly, that "security personnel were the only people observed counting the ballots." The Center had similar concerns about tabulation in North and South Darfur.

These facts do not surprise most Sudanese who have long argued that it was patently ridiculous to think that free and fair elections could be held in Darfur at this time. Still, most Darfuris never expected that members of Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) would attempt to profit financially from their disenfranchisement. Yet that is what happened when party members in El Fasher (the capital of North Darfur) set up a Ponzi scheme last fall that reportedly bilked Darfuris of million of dollars. Making matters worse, NCP agents in the days before the elections allegedly declared that only those that voted for their party candidates (and Bashir) would be compensated for their losses.

The men ultimately responsible for this swindle of cash and vote buying turned out to be the newly elected members of parliament in the area. In response, protestors took to the streets at the beginning of the month to demand justice and were subsequently fired upon by the Sudanese security forces - an incident that killed up to eight unarmed civilians. This incident demonstrates that the rule of law remains largely absent from Darfur. Instead, the newly elected members of Bashir's party and a chaotic array of militias, fractured rebel movements, and security agents control the region's seven million people through the barrel of their guns and their political schemes to control and dominate everyday life.

Over the weekend, the African Union convened a meeting of its members, the United Nations and special envoys to discuss Darfur and Sudan's other interlocking crises. The resulting communiqué politely stated that after the elections "a new reality has emerged, which should inform and contribute to peacekeeping and peace building efforts in Darfur." Unfortunately, with most of the limited international attention now being shifted to managing the expected divorce of North and South Sudan, there is a real risk that this dangerous reality in Darfur will not be confronted until next year.

If this is the case, low-level, but apparently acceptable, violence will endure; perpetrators of years of human rights violations will remain impervious to justice; and the peace process - requiring international resources and backing for success - will languish with the millions of Darfuris that remain in camps. In short, the Sudanese regime will go another year without addressing the root causes of conflict in Darfur, as its policies and the irresponsible behavior of the rebels allows the multitude of complex local issues to continue to fester and perhaps explode. Unless the international community finds the wherewithal and capacity to deal with Sudan's interlocking crises at the same time, this new dangerous reality will likely take hold and make a political resolution and return to normalcy in Darfur that much more difficult in the future.

Cross posted on the Save Darfur Coalition's blog.