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Elections cast shadow over Sudan peace

South Sudan is still recovering from civil war. Will elections solidify its peace or plunge it back into war?

People displaced from Abyei wait for emergency food rations distributed by the World Food Program in Agok, south Sudan, in this picture made available by the United Nations Mission in Sudan, June 3, 2008. (Tim McKulka/UNMIS/Handout/Reuters)

JUBA, southern Sudan — Standing in the shade of the solitary tree at this ad-hoc voter registration center — a flimsy plastic table and two chairs — Margaret Simon points to the thick bundle of timber lying on the other side of the dusty road.

Life, she says, is difficult for southern Sudanese — especially for the region’s women. She and many others regularly make the long and dangerous journey from the other side of the mountain to the city’s urban markets with firewood, eking out a daily survival in one of the world’s last great undeveloped frontiers.

Today she made the trek here, burden and all, to register to vote in a few months time. “I pray to God that the leaders will see the suffering of the women,” she says softly.

Sudan is the largest nation in either Africa or the Arab world, covering 967,000 square miles, making it about one quarter the size of the United States. It has a population of about 40 million.

Real elections here have been a rare occurrence. The national elections scheduled for April are the product of an even rarer breakthrough in the country’s stream of civil wars. A war between the country's mostly Arab Muslim North and the predominantly non-Muslim African South first broke out in 1955. The civil war erupted again in more furious form in 1983 when an estimated 2 million people died — mostly civilians, and mostly southerners.

An end to the violence was achieved in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which provided for a six-year interim period to be jointly ruled by President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) and the former guerrilla group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The deal granted the SPLM semi-autonomous rule over the south during the period. Two elections would then be held, the first to determine representation for all in the national governments and the second in which the people of south Sudan could vote whether or not to be independent.

The interim period of joint rule was designed — mostly by international mediators — to give the nation a “legitimate” government leading to the all-critical vote on whether or not the south would choose to secede from the north. The elections during the interim period were also created to give the Sudanese people a chance to see what a united, democratic Sudan could be like before the oil-rich south could vote to divide the country.

Despite the mobilization of southerners like Margaret Simon to register, few outsiders now express enthusiasm for the April poll. Many are aware of problems in the peace agreement plan.