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Opinion: Sudan peace deal merely a ploy

President Omar al-Bashir's incremental peace deal in Darfur deflects scrutiny from crucial national polls.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, left, waves his trademark cane as he rides with governor Yussef Keber during a rally in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, on Feb. 24, 2010. "The war in Darfur is over," said Bashir, after signing a peace agreement with Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement but some analysts think the agreement is just a ploy to deflect attention from impending elections in Sudan's south. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

BUNGOMA, Kenya — “The war in Darfur is over,” Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir recently proclaimed, one day after signing a peace deal with one of the main rebel factions in Darfur.

On the surface, the peace deal would seem to be a positive development for Sudan. In reality, it is just the most recent of Bashir’s distraction tactics.

By turning international media and diplomatic attention to Darfur, Bashir has deflected their eyes from the national elections, slated for April 11. Far more important than an incremental “peace deal” in Darfur, the national polls are a critical step in the process that will determine whether south Sudan becomes independent in 2011.

The peace deal with Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), called for a ceasefire between JEM and the Sudanese government and agreed that both sides would work toward a full peace agreement. JEM is the only Darfur rebel group to have launched a significant attack on the Sudanese government outside Sudan: In May 2008, it attacked Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city across the Nile.

Bashir made a similar peace deal in 2006 with another Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army. Minni Minawi, its former leader, now lives in Khartoum, is a presidential adviser and drives a black Mercedes with a government license plate. The 2006 peace deal was greeted with optimism similar to the recent deal with JEM, but four years later, true peace remains elusive in Darfur. If anything, the peace deal with JEM is a bid by Bashir for votes in April’s election.

It also keeps international attention fixed on Darfur, at the expense of the upcoming elections. For the past four years, with most international diplomatic energy directed at Darfur, the fragile peace between north and south Sudan became even more precarious. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, was meant to safeguard that peace. It sets out a series of major milestones for both sides to accomplish ahead of an eventual referendum on the autonomy of south Sudan.

But the diplomatic attention that went into negotiating the CPA disappeared after it was signed. The timetable on all of these milestones has lapsed; for some, implementation has not even begun. The border between north and south was supposed to be demarcated by July 2005; this work has barely begun. The national census was supposed to be complete by July 2007; it finished in 2009, to widespread concern that the numbers have been inflated in areas that support Bashir’s ruling NCP party, and decreased in areas that do not. National elections were supposed to be held by July 2009; if elections go forward in April, they will occur less than one year before south Sudan votes on whether or not to become autonomous.

Elections are critical to Sudan’s long-term stability. Political appointees currently fill all Sudan’s legislature and its executive branch; in theory, elections are an opportunity for Sudan’s diverse population to choose its political representatives. But the government has restricted freedom of speech, much of south Sudan’s population is illiterate, and even now, it’s unclear whether there is enough money to run the full election (with its 12 separate ballots). The elections may not be free or fair, but they’re the only opportunity many Sudanese have to participate in national politics.