Intimidating and beating opposition members. An increasingly authoritarian African government desperately clinging onto power by “waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists.”
As Sudan stumbles towards mid-April presidential and parliamentary elections, the reigning Omar al-Bashir government has deservedly come under intense media and activist scrutiny for undermining the prospects of a “free and fair” ballot in Africa’s largest nation.
Yet the preceding descriptions come not from the conflict-ridden official U.S. “enemy state,” but rather, from recent Human Rights Watch reports about the staunchly Washington-allied governments of Rwanda and Ethiopia, respectively. As in Sudan, voters in both countries will be going to the polls in the coming months.
That pre-election repression by these U.S. allies does not occasion comparable attention in the corporate press is strongly indicative of the actual degree of concern for democratic principles maintained by the agenda-setting class. Those seeking honest answers about tackling the political impasse in Sudan – or anywhere else, for that matter – must do so with a skeptical eye towards dominant Western narratives about the country.
Sudan: The “Sham” Elections?
With the April 11-13 election fast approaching, Sudan is poised for its first national vote since widely condemned elections in 2000.
Though officially backed by the United Nations and U.S., many opposition groups within Sudan, as well as Western advocacy organizations, are opposed to allowing the elections to go forward. In light of Sudan’s harsh repression of the political opposition, and the mere prospect of allowing a probable victory for Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted for war crimes, the ubiquitous Save Darfur Coalition is calling on Washington to declare the elections as “not credible”, so as not to “legitimize the renegade and fugitive leader.” Another campaign calls on the Obama administration to label these the “Sudan Sham” elections.
Aside from the regrettable reality that Bashir – like his fellow Western bogeyman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – might actually win a hypothetical election that is not in fact rigged, there is little doubt that the polls will not live up to the highest international norms of “free and fair.”
Despite the multitude of candidates and parties participating, Khartoum is clearly mobilizing the state machinery to tilt the scales in its favor, typified by its eyebrow-raising move to award the ballot-printing contract to a government-run firm, instead of to the Slovenian company that had previously been agreed upon. Further, freedom of assembly has been curtailed to the extent that youths in Khartoum have been detained and beaten for publicly urging voters to reject the ruling party at the ballot box. The press is harassed. A leading opposition candidate canceled his scheduled radio address on a public station after the National Election Commission required him to remove material from his speech on the grounds that it constituted “incitement.” Unsurprisingly, the Darfuri population in particular has been subject to many census and registration irregularities in preparation for the elections.
For its part, the Save Darfur Coalition demands in its elections primer that the U.S.-led international community “make clear” that both the vote and the Bashir regime itself are illegitimate, and that the referendum on independence for South Sudan, scheduled for January 2011, must proceed as planned. In and of themselves, these are not objectionable goals.
However, whatever enhanced legitimacy Bashir may attempt to extract from the polls, the elections were not his prerogative. The election is mandated by the 2005 agreement that ended the decades long civil war between the North and South of the country and is a central precursor to next year’s referendum on Southern independence.
Further, Save Darfur does not specify what Washington could do to “make clear” that it wants Bashir out. Declare Sudan a “state sponsor of terrorism”? It’s been on the list since 1993. Place the country under comprehensive sanctions? Sudan has survived them since 1997. Launch a cruise missile attack in the capital? Happened in 1998. Threats of “regime change”? Check. What’s left? Arm the rebels? Send in the Marines?
In reality, a U.S. declaration that the elections are illegitimate would almost surely have no practical effect on the Darfur conflict, or the nature of the Sudanese government. Accordingly, the “Sham Elections” call will most likely go down in history, at best, as a questionable use of limited activist resources, much like the largely unsuccessful campaign to boycott the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to protest the China-Sudan alliance.
Advocating for Sudan
As Washington is not the proximate cause of the various conflicts in Sudan, U.S.-based Sudan advocates do not have the same leverage as activists working on causes more directly related to U.S. policy, such as the occupation of Iraq, or U.S.-Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The U.S. could stop the settlement-building in East Jerusalem that the Obama administration is reportedly against tomorrow if it threatened to cut Israel’s stratospheric aid package. There is no similar step that Sudan activists could demand of Washington to bring an end to Sudan’s assorted crises.
Yet this does not mean that there is nothing we can do to support the Sudanese people.
As citizens, we must target U.S. allies such as Kenya, Egypt, and Ethiopia to stop flooding Sudan with arms. More support must be given to humanitarian organizations, as well as to fostering a diplomatic settlement. And as we argue in our book, Scramble for Africa, Washington must quit its shamelessly hypocritical routine of publicly rattling its saber against Khartoum, while privately collaborating with some of the regime’s worst human rights abusers as part of an intelligence-sharing program between the CIA and Sudanese spooks.
Appealing to the innate humanitarianism of the U.S. government, as Save Darfur tends to do, especially while it is at war with Afghanistan and Iraq, and bankrolling the occupation of Palestine, is a shaky endeavor at best. Sudanese are very much in need of international solidarity – but governments are at best a poor medium for such action. Nor can we content ourselves with directing our activism towards the victims of Washington’s geopolitical adversaries, while ignoring those of official allies. Until the activist establishment centered on Sudan absorbs these propositions, there is little hope that their advocacy will be effective at improving the flawed forthcoming elections – or much of anything else.
Steven Fake and Kevin Funk are the co-authors of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org, and can be reached at thescrambleforafrica (at) gmail.com.