The Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, suspended its participation in the Darfur peace talks in Doha this week to protest the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, plans to hold a referendum on the administrative status of Darfur. The referendum, which would determine whether Darfur stays divided as three separate states or is unified into one region, appears to be the NCP’s latest attempt to look conciliatory while pursuing its own interests.
This most recent development comes on the heels of president Omer al-Bashir’s announcement last week that he had signed a presidential decree, unilaterally paving the way for the Darfur referendum to go forward. His argument for pursuing this plan outside of the Doha forum (where this issue is currently being discussed) is that it is part of the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, or DPA, and the NCP therefore has an obligation to implement it. It should be noted that any legitimacy that this failed agreement still possessed was thrown out the window when Minni Minnawi, the only rebel leader to actually sign the deal, formally backed out of it two months ago, claiming that the government was failing to fulfill its obligations vis-à-vis the agreement.
By announcing its intention to hold the referendum, the NCP is utilizing one of its favorite strategies. While the rebels have in the past advocated for the creation of one greater Darfur region, and a referendum seemingly offers an opportunity for the people of Darfur to choose whether they agree, both the NCP and the rebels know that there is no way a proper referendum can happen at this time. As JEM’s chief negotiator told Reuters, “Darfur is not ready for a referendum… People are not in a position to participate freely and express their will in a proper way.”
In other words, the environment in Darfur is not conducive to the kind of referendum that would truly reflect the will of Darfuris. The body that has been charged with running the vote, the National Elections Commission, does not have the best track record – it is the same agency that ran the flawed April elections last year. Furthermore, given the fact that the NCP is the only party slated to be involved in the planning of the referendum, the chances that the results will be skewed are extremely high. Should the referendum go forward, the most likely outcome will be state-organized campaigns of intimidation and arbitrary arrests leading to the optimal scenario for the NCP itself (i.e. the maintenance of a three state system, with the possibility of an additional state in West Darfur), and not so much the will of the people.
Given what it has taken to get JEM and LJM to sit at the table together, the mediation should consider what it is risking by not speaking out more publicly against this plan. If the NCP continues to pursue the referendum, Doha may be derailed yet again – this time, for good.