Opinion: Sudan peace deal merely a ploy

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.

When the United States had the opportunity to help facilitate free and fair elections in Sudan and press for implementation of the CPA, it was focusing its diplomatic energy on Darfur. This strategy yielded little, and in October 2009, President Barack Obama's administration announced a new Sudan strategy, one that explicitly acknowledged the importance of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for South Sudan as well as Darfur.

In practice, however, Darfur is still taking precedence. The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration, appears to spend most of his time focused on Darfur. In February, Gration made a two-week trip to the region to work on the JEM peace deal. In a press briefing, he asserted that it’s necessary to work both Darfur and the CPA implementation issues simultaneously. It was clear that Darfur came first, however.

“Ensuring that the south has an opportunity to express its will through the referendum is very important. At the same time, there’s an urgency of making sure that the conditions in Darfur are reversed,” said Gration.

The continued focus on Darfur is unfortunate, because the United States still has an opportunity, albeit a limited one, to play a constructive role in the events leading up to the referendum in 2011, including April’s national elections. Had Washington turned its efforts to the CPA earlier, it would have had the chance to encourage Sudanese political figures to engage with the general population and see the feelings of marginalization by Sudan’s strong central government. Now, a lot of time has already been lost, and as a result, the United States must press for what will prevent war between north and south Sudan, not what could have helped repair the underlying political tensions that make war a possibility.

In a trenchant analysis published recently by U.K. think tank the International Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), Sudan expert Edward Thomas writes that because the referendum is less than a year away, the most straightforward way to ensure a peaceful transition is to focus on facilitating political deals between Sudan’s elite in the NCP, the ruling party, and in south Sudan’s party, SPLM. This will come at the expense of consultations and engagement with Sudan’s diverse populations, whether in south Sudan itself, in Darfur or in eastern Sudan. “Sudan’s big decisions and intractable deadlines next year will preoccupy its rulers and they will probably keep intact the root causes of Sudan’s wars,” Thomas writes.

The United States has lost the opportunity to press the NCP and the SPLM to engage with the Sudanese population. But if it doesn’t direct more of its diplomatic energies toward the critical months ahead of the 2011 south Sudan referendum on autonomy, the fragile peace brought by the CPA could easily shatter.

Stephanie Hanson is director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization based in Kenya.