In February, as part of a delegation from the Save Darfur Coalition, I met Mustafa Ismail in Khartoum. Ismail is the country’s former foreign minister and current presidential adviser to President Omar Al Bashir. He thanked us for our “timely visit,” then proceeded to speak almost uninterrupted for close to an hour about the Sudanese regime’s new commitment to democracy, peace, and development. To that end, he urged the international community to endorse the country’s upcoming nationwide elections and stop “inflaming” the situation in Sudan with false accusations.
Now, with the Sudanese vote set to begin this weekend, the Obama administration seems to be doing exactly what Ismail had wanted. Last month, Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said that “significant preparations have been made to ensure that the elections will really reflect the will of the people” (although he added that there were “logistical challenges” still to resolve). Then, last weekend—after the presidential candidate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the major party that represents southern Sudan, withdrew from the race, citing the prospect of massive fraud and intimidation—Gration said that members of Sudan’s electoral commission had “given [him] confidence that the elections … would be as free and as fair as possible,” adding that they “have gone to great lengths to ensure that the people of Sudan will have access to polling places and that the procedures and processes will ensure transparency.”
Gration’s optimism is baffling. As I learned during my recent four-week trip to Sudan—when I visited Khartoum, the southern part of the country, and Darfur—there is no chance that these elections will be even remotely free or fair. For one thing, the government has been harassing its opponents for months. Three weeks ago, an 18-year-old activist associated with the youth group Girifna—“We are fed up” in Arabic—said that he had been kidnapped and tortured by government agents. This followed the arrest in early March of three Girifna members who had been taking part in a voter mobilization effort sponsored by the group. Another youth activist has said he was kidnapped and tortured by national intelligence agents back in December. That month, three leading members of the SPLM were briefly arrested. And, on the same day in February when I met Ismail and heard his protestations about the regime’s commitment to democracy, a Darfuri student activist named Mohamed Musa was abducted from the University of Khartoum; he was later found dead. (While no one knows for sure who killed him, the government behaved oddly in the wake of his death—detaining his father at the airport in Khartoum, for instance—and many suspect the Sudanese security services were responsible for the murder.)
It is true that Sudan is not a totalitarian state like North Korea or Burma, and the aftermath of Musa’s death in some ways demonstrated—in the words of one leading opposition figure—the “margin of freedom” available to political parties in advance of these elections. More than 1,000 Darfuris and other Sudanese protested as part of the funeral proceedings in Khartoum (albeit under the watchful eye of what one attendee said were over 700 security forces and 30 trucks with heavy artillery mounted on the back). An opposition leader attended the funeral and hailed Musa as “one of our martyrs.” The next day, a few papers even covered the story.
But there is a catch—and it is this catch that makes Gration’s optimism look truly ridiculous: While some political space has opened in the country’s northern and southern states over the past few years, things are quite different in Darfur to the west. There, politics of even the narrow variety remain generally impossible, as sporadic violence against civilians continues and a general atmosphere of intimidation prevails.
The official campaign season had just begun during the week I spent in the three state capitals of Darfur. But the region remains under a state of emergency and heavily militarized: Checkpoints restrict most travel outside of the three major cities, and, around the time I arrived, the government launched an offensive against rebels in the mountainous area of Jebel Marra. An estimated 100,000 people were displaced by the fighting.
Every opposition party member I spoke to in Sudan mentioned how the state of emergency severely constrains campaigning in Darfur. What is legal or illegal changes by the day and the mood of the nearest group of men with guns and pickup trucks. The omnipresence of uniformed men throughout the region makes a recent recommendation from the Carter Center—one of the international organizations in charge of election monitoring—to the Sudanese government seem completely disconnected from reality. What, exactly, would it mean for the regime to “take all necessary steps to avoid the unnecessary militarization of polling stations” when all of Darfur remains firmly in the hands of either the state security apparatus or rebel movements?
Not surprisingly, during my time in Darfur, I saw only a few opposition campaign posters amid a sea of pro-government propaganda. I heard about the recent detention and harassment of political leaders and human rights activists by government officials. One night in a private home, I listened to female opposition politicians and human rights activists speak about their suspicion that security agents will target those who campaign or vote against Bashir’s party. As the curfew of 10 p.m. drew near, they rushed through a litany of electoral and human rights violations—including the closure of opposition party meetings and the detention of opposition party members. Finishing the meeting, one woman warned, “Darfur is a time-bomb about to go off.”
In Khartoum, a leading columnist spoke about being forced from a newspaper because of a recent article he wrote on Darfur that was critical of the government’s policies. The former prime minister, Sadiq Al Mahdi, told me that he and his party could not pass up this opportunity to change the government and therefore were fielding candidates nationwide, including in Darfur; but, two weeks later, state radio refused to air a campaign speech in which he referenced the International Criminal Court’s outstanding arrest warrant for Bashir—an arrest warrant that was obviously quite popular in Darfur. (Two days ago, Al Mahdi announced that his party would now boycott the elections.)
No wonder that a senior peacekeeping official in Nyala—Darfur’s largest city—told me that the majority of Darfuris are not interested in the upcoming vote. The more than two million displaced people in camps generally boycotted the registration process. Sitting under a tent in one camp in West Darfur with a group of almost twenty sheikhs, I asked about the upcoming elections. One of them shook his head and declared that there were no candidates on the ballot who represented their interests. The whole process, he said, makes us “feel like we don’t belong to this country.”
In all likelihood, Bashir’s government will soon declare victory in the elections. It will ask the world to believe that, despite a decades-long record of genocide and repression, it has earned a mandate from the people it governs. Perhaps the world and the Obama administration—desperate for some sign of progress in Sudan—will choose to believe it.
This would be a major mistake. Whatever the outcome, the elections are almost certain to leave Darfuris excluded from the politics of Sudan. More than two million of them will still live in displaced persons camps, unable to return home. Meanwhile, even in the relatively freer parts of the country, the harassment, intimidation, and torture of activists and political opponents is sure to continue. Should there be an outcry by these reformers after the election—something along the lines of what happened after last June’s election in Iran—the Obama administration must be prepared to stand with them. And under no circumstances should it legitimize what is guaranteed to be a deeply un-democratic vote.