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