JUBA, Southern Sudan – Campaigning for Sudan’s upcoming elections kicked off on February 13, but due to the funding challenges that many opposition parties face – and the logistical challenges that even the two ruling parties (the National Congress Party in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Juba) face in organizing campaign efforts – “elections season” has only begun to heat up in recent days.
Juba was abuzz (and slightly on edge) yesterday with the arrival of President Omar al-Bashir, who is making an extremely rare three-day tour of Juba and several towns in Central and Eastern Equatoria states. Lam Akol, the controversial leader of the SPLM-Democratic Change (a so-called “breakaway faction” of the SPLM), also arrived in Juba to try to appeal to southerners in the two-way race for the southern presidency between him and the current president of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir. (Human Rights Watch recently reported on serious abuses of SPLM-DC members by the ruling SPLM, and the Sudan Tribune reported that the party’s offices in Renk, a town in Akol’s home state of Upper Nile, was ransacked by SPLM members last week.) Finally, Clement Wani Konga, the SPLM’s candidate for the governor of Central Equatoria state (of which Juba is the capital), was out with his supporters yesterday morning, waving to people lining the streets from atop a pickup truck at the head of a large parade and shouting “SPLM Oyee,” a slogan of the party.
There has been a flurry of international attention – and criticism – around Sudan’s twice-delayed polls. Once seen as a cornerstone of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a central tool in the effort to “democratically transform” Sudan, the elections no longer hold this promise for the majority of Sudanese citizens. International advocacy and research groups like Enough, Human Rights Watch, and International Crisis Group, have sounded the alarm about the dangerous security climate in which the elections are set to occur and emphasized how it is essentially impossible at this stage for the elections to be conducted in a free and fair manner.
But no matter how external actors view the elections, the real issue is how Sudanese citizens feel about the process. Here are a couple snippets from conversations I had with Sudanese citizens who were watching (and sometimes participating) in yesterday’s campaign events (these quotes are anonymous given the sensitive topic):
“These people don’t have the experience yet, because it’s their first time.” – Young southern Sudanese man who grew up as a refugee (having fled Sudan’s civil war) in Uganda and witnessed the 2001 and 2006 elections in Uganda
“It’s bad [the campaign season] because people need to make a living. Why is the market closed? Not because people want to welcome Bashir, but because they fear violence.
Northerners [working in Juba] are easily the victims.” – Lawyer and civil society activist lamenting how merchants, traders, and other Juba residents are already shutting down their stores in fear of political violence surrounding the campaign season; a usually bustling thoroughfare in Juba lined with shops run predominantly by Arab traders and foreign businesspeople was practically boarded up yesterday.
“We want to campaign, but it is a problem of funds.” – Member of a small opposition party, lamenting his party’s inability to hold campaign events throughout southern Sudan due to substantial costs for organizing such efforts.
Campaign billboards and posters all over town trumpet party slogans such as “Freedom-Peace-Prosperity” and catchwords from “Hope and Change” (Yassir Arman evoking President Obama) to “Vision and Mission” (for GoSS President Salva Kiir). However, it’s difficult to imagine how the politicians competing in these elections will be able deliver on their lofty campaign promises as southern Sudan hurtles toward likely independence amid ongoing insecurity throughout the South and high tensions with its northern “partners” in Khartoum over an array of unimplemented provisions in the peace agreement.
N.B. Unfortunately, I have not yet traveled to northern Sudan and am unable to comment on how the electoral process is unfolding there, but I did want to highlight an interesting new political movement in Khartoum called Girifna, which (according to their website www.girifna.com) “literally means ‘we are disgusted’ and metaphorically, ‘we have had enough.’” Hard not to be inspired by these activists and what they are doing against extreme odds.