Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Darfur referendum

The votes are being counted from last week’s referendum on the Sudanese province of Darfur, with major differences emerging between the government and opposition, reports Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

The votes are being tallied following the referendum in Darfur in western Sudan last week. The results of the polls, which took place from 11 to 13 April, are expected to be announced within 10 days.

Voters in the province were given the opportunity to choose whether they preferred to combine the five states of Darfur into a single administrative region, as was the case before 1995, or to retain the current status quo of five separately administrated states.

The referendum was held in accordance with the Doha Agreement between Khartoum and a number of relatively weak militant opposition movements and did not include the main opposition forces.

According to opposition reports, voter turnout was low at most polling stations, and half the population of Darfur is still displaced due to the 13-year civil war in Sudan. However, government sources claim a high turnout, with newspapers close to the regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir citing a voter turnout of more than 73 per cent.

More than 2.5 million inhabitants of Darfur have fled to Chad and Central Africa or are displaced inside Sudan and living in 147 camps, according to UN estimates. Sudanese opposition forces maintain that the high number of refugees and displaced persons, combined with the deterioration in the state of security, means that large portions of the population of Darfur were prevented from voting. The government boasts of army victories that have restored security in the region.

The controversy over the referendum also spread into the Sudanese National Assembly, when Ahmed Ibrahim, an MP from Darfur, argued that what the region needed was not a referendum but rather an end to the conflict over land and pasturage and water resources, compensation for victims, and the collection of weapons from all the factions.

MP Siham Hassan Hasaballah held that the referendum had been “overtaken by events.” Not all of the provisions of the 2011 Doha Agreement have been fully implemented and the more powerful militia forces do not recognise it, she said.

Government supporters counter that the referendum is a constitutional requirement according to the terms of the agreement. Khartoum “will not give up on peace,” said Mustafa Ismail, head of the political bureau of the ruling National Congress Party.

More than 100,000 inhabitants of Darfur have been displaced this year alone, a significant indicator of the perilous state of security in the province, according to reports in the international media.

UN reports estimate that more than 300,000 civilians have been killed in the ongoing conflict since 2003 between the Sudanese government and its allies among Arab tribes in Darfur and armed opposition movements predominantly drawn from members of non-Arab tribes.

There have also been reports of widespread rape. Women’s and human rights organisations state that tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped, sometimes in front of their fathers or husbands.

In view of the magnitude of the Darfur atrocities, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of Al-Bashir on the charge of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetuated in Darfur.

As a result, Al-Bashir’s visits abroad have triggered considerable controversy. The most recent case was his visit to South Africa to attend an African Union summit in 2015. Civil society organisations called on the South African High Court to issue an order for the Sudanese president’s arrest, but Al-Bashir managed to make his getaway just a few hours before the court issued the arrest warrant.

The opposition Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur has issued a statement rejecting the referendum, which it describes as a way for the government to control the region.

The major militia movements in Darfur maintain that the solution to the problems of the region is to ensure that it and other Sudanese regions are guaranteed fair representation in government institutions. The regions should be restored to the borders as they stood at the time of the country’s independence from Britain in 1956, they say.

From its annexation to Sudan in 1916 until the 1990s, Darfur remained a single region. In 1994-1995, the government divided the region into three states and in 2005 increased the number to five.

Khartoum hopes the referendum results will be in favour of the status quo, as multiple states will weaken the non-Arab tribes.

“The purpose of dividing Darfur was to reduce the influence of the Al-Fur, the largest ethnic and national group in the region, and to increase the influence of the Arabs,” said Al-Hajj Waraq, editor-in-chief of the Hurriyat (Freedoms) newspaper.

He added that when the government introduced the new administrative divisions, “it distributed the Al-Fur villages across the three states, turning this people into a minority in a region that had been named after them for centuries: Dar Al-Fur, or the land of the Al-Fur.”

Government officials claim that the “inhabitants of Darfur” will opt for the continuation of the current administrative divisions. Abdullah Massar, former aide to the Sudanese president, argues that reunifying the region “will encourage other forces to secede.” According to the 1955 census, taken only months before national independence, the non-Arab tribes in Darfur (the largest being Al-Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa) formed the majority of the population of the region.

However, the Arab Gathering (Tajammu Al-Arabi), an organisation that the opposition movements in Darfur hold responsible for the war crimes in the region, claims that the majority of the population is Arab.

The people of Darfur complain that their region has been systematically marginalised. Al-Fur activists published a “Black Book” that claims that the population of North Sudan from Khartoum northwards to the Egyptian border has monopolised the vast majority of jobs and educational opportunities in Sudan since the colonial era.

“Many factors ignited the conflict,” said Mohamed Yussef Wardi, a Sudanese writer living in Washington DC. “However, in 1985 the government began to use the Arab tribes, first in the civil war in the south in the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently in Darfur.”

When the troubled region was divided into several states following the war with Chad in the 1980s, the Arabs gained the majority in each state. “This gave them the ability to control Darfur on behalf of the government,” Wardi said.

“Around the mid-1980s, Arab tribal militias were formed to maintain control over the non-Arabs. They were called the ‘Marahil’ and then the ‘Janjaweed’. The Arab Gathering, funded by Libya during the era of [former Libyan leader] Muammar Gaddafi, and the Sudanese government organised these militias that have been accused of perpetrating ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

“Reunifying the region means increasing the influence of the non-Arab tribes. Al-Bashir does want this at all,” Wardi said.

The civil war in the south of Sudan erupted in May 1983 after then President Jaafar Numeiri divided the south into three regions to weaken the numerous Dinka tribes and secure Khartoum’s control over the south.

“The regime in Khartoum cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. It is forever determined to dominate everyone,” said Paul Akog, a writer from South Sudan who resides in Uganda.

He cautions that the referendum could galvanise the non-Arabs into unifying their efforts in a drive toward secession if people believe that Khartoum is bent on repeating the scenario of South Sudan.

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