There is a tentative hope for the future among the Sudanese diaspora. Jimmy Mulla, the president of Voices for Sudan, sat down with Enough to discuss the referendum from the perspective of the American diaspora. Jimmy wrote a blog post for Enough in April, which described the disenfranchisement the U.S. diaspora experienced while trying to vote in Sudan’s presidential and parliamentary elections. (Some responses have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
Are the voting issues you are seeing now as difficult as they were during the elections this past April?
The Government of Southern Sudan and the Government of Sudan are out of the referendum’s administration process. That’s creating a better environment for this process, because in April, the Embassy of Sudan was responsible and that created a lot of issues. Also, now according to the requirements that will be placed, there will be some consideration especially for those who do not have Sudanese ID cards. Most of the people who came here passed through third party countries. They didn’t come directly from Sudan, and they lived in those areas for some time. And, some of them just became a refugee. They traveled out of the country or they fled, so they didn’t have those proper documents. But now there are other criteria that have been introduced that will make it much easier to be eligible to vote in the referendum. These changes came about in discussions in the referendum commission.
Does the Sudanese diaspora’s experience with voting, or challenges voting, in the April elections reflect on Sudan’s ability to organize a free and fair referendum? With the recent improvements you mentioned, is there more hope for the referendum in Sudan itself?
It definitely gives a better feeling about the whole process. But the key here is to make sure the process is implemented thoroughly, methodically so that there are no irregularities. It has to follow all of those guidelines that were set out, so that when we have an outcome of the referendum, there will be no disputes.
Through your work with Voices of Sudan you’re in close touch with many members of the Sudanese diaspora living in the United States. What is your sense of how people feel about southern Sudan’s potential secession?
Well, the Sudanese diaspora is diverse. You have people from all parts of Sudan, from war-affected areas and from areas not affected by conflict. You have people from the South, Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and eastern Sudan; these are sections of the population that have been affected by conflict. People from these areas are definitely very concerned and monitor closely what is happening in the country. Given the challenges experienced by those regions some of them do not mind for the South to secede, but others do not want the South to secede. That is the general feeling. People from other regions, like the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, have popular consultations. However, it’s not clear how those processes are going to play out. And they’re also concerned, because the popular consultations are a part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
There has been this lack of commitment, or good faith and political will, from the government of President Bashir. They have tried to derail all of these processes. It is the international intervention that has kept the CPA and the referendum process alive. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be. From the North, the traditional elite group that has really benefited from their station in Sudan feels that Sudan should not break apart. It is in their best interest to see things stay the same.
Do you believe that the opposition groups in North are concerned about how dynamics in the North will play out if the South chooses secession?
Definitely. They are very much afraid, because if the South goes, they don’t know how the conflict in Darfur will play out. The popular consultation in Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, these are large areas that are a part of the North but have been marginalized for a long time. In eastern Sudan too, when the peace agreement was signed, it did not address their grievances in those areas. You have all these tensions and potential conflicts. This is something the ruling party in the North is supposed to be thinking about, according to the peace agreements they’ve signed. Unless they change their mentality and way of doing business, unless they accept the diversity in Sudan, and accept that every Sudanese has a right, these struggles will continue.
Do you believe that the South’s likely secession will put pressure on the Khartoum government to address the marginalization of other groups in the North?
The government of Bashir is not really looking towards that. They had the opportunity in the CPA to change, to transform into a democratic country, but they failed to respect the terms of the agreement to bring about the changes that everybody expected. I don’t think they are in a position to look towards anything different. If they were, they had the opportunity. I just don’t see them doing anything different, unless some circumstances force them too. But, that is not in their way of thinking.
Even though the Sudanese community in the United States is relatively small compared to the population of southern Sudan, are diaspora members are still passionate about the act of voting as a symbolic gesture?
The diaspora will add onto to the will of Sudan’s population and reaffirm what the heart of the country feels about the process. The diaspora are passionate about voting. They follow every event over the internet. Sometimes it’s not much different from being in Sudan than being here. There are many online forums, where everything that happens in Sudan is posted in real-time or almost. People are definitely engaged in the discussions and following what is happening there.
Girifna, a student movement based in Sudan, is organizing a youth meeting to enable people from the "different regions in our country to discuss the referendum and how we as new generation can live in peace." What are your reactions to the Girifna movement and other groups working within Sudan?
This is a good step for the student movement. In Sudan, there have not been many generational changes. You have the old folks with their old ideas imposing themselves on the population. The youth are breaking away from the old folks and bringing in new ideas. It’s unfortunate that Sudan is in the state that it is in. The people in Sudan really don’t deserve to be in such misery and poverty. Sudan is a rich country; there are a lot of resources. It’s a matter of instituting a government that really cares for the people.
We in the Voices for Sudan, don’t only look to the referendum and all those deadlines, because the deadlines come and go. There are no guarantees that all of these processes will have an outcome that leads to peace and stability in the country. The potential for conflict is high. Sudan need movements like Girifna’s that create a ground for people to sit down to talk and discuss the issues: What are Sudan’s problems? What do they need as a country? They need development; they need peace; they need education; they need security and guarantees of human rights and equal rights. I think the Girifna movement is good. I hope the political elements don’t bring divisions among them and prevent them from pursuing their goals. It’s definitely a new trend. Girifna is operating under a very intense environment. The government places restrictions on media and is always cracking down on human rights activists and political groups. What can you do?
Do you have plans to return to Sudan?
Yes, definitely. I look to return to Sudan. I look to it more as: “What will be my contribution?” Whether there is peace or war, you definitely have to prepare what your contribution will be. Here in the United States, I’ve had experience with creating debate forum on policy. That will be something in the long term that I will look at doing, to create an institution, such as a think tank in Sudan.
Photo: Jimmy Mulla, president of Voices for Sudan