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The National Interest: Sudan's Election Fiasco

Author: J. Peter Pham
April 9, 2010


J. Peter Pham recounts Sudan's recent history relevant to the April 2010 elections there.

Former President George W. Bush is nowadays widely derided for his "faith-based" approach to foreign policy, characterized, according to its critics, by both the overweening ambitions of its promoters and their universalistic assumptions about other societies. However, it turns out that many, including some of Bush's most vociferous international and American detractors, have dogmatic fetishes of their own which now threaten to turn this weekend's elections in Sudan from a mere fiasco into a geopolitical crisis of the first magnitude.

The history of the modern Sudan is a complicated story with seemingly endless cycles of marginalization, extremism and conflict, including two major civil wars-the second of which only ended five years ago after more than two decades of brutal violence in which at least two million people, most of them civilians in the south, lost their lives. Another five million were displaced. After all that, one might have thought that the logical course of action might have been to declare "irreconcilable differences" and proceed to brokering a peace whereby the two parties to the conflict, the Arab-dominated Islamist regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which represented the largely Christian Black African peoples in the south, could go their separate ways. The moment, after all, was ripe: both sides had exhausted themselves and Sudan's neighbors had taken a lead in demanding an end to hostilities which had destabilized the whole subregion.

Unfortunately, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 was less a product of realpolitik than a monument to abstract notions about human nature and politics. The question of a possible partition was deferred until January 2011, when southern Sudanese would be allowed to vote on whether to remain in a united Sudan or strike out on their own. In the meantime, the National Congress Party (NCP) of President Umar Hassan al-Bashir was forced into an awkward cohabitation with its sworn SPLM foes. The unspoken aspiration of many diplomats was that the "unity government" would prove to be inclusive and efficient enough that southerners would be persuaded to stay put. Elections were supposed to be held to put to seal on the "democratic transformation" of Sudan. In short, a policy was constructed based more on belief-some would even say wishful thinking-than sober analysis of the dynamics of the conflict.

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