On 23 April, it was announced that almost 98% of voters in Darfur’s referendum voted for maintaining the region as five states. The referendum – organised over three days in mid-April by the Sudanese authorities – allowed the people of Darfur to decide whether to keep the current arrangement of five states or to reunify the states into a single autonomous region.
The official reason for the government holding the vote was to comply with the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) agreement, signed in 2011. However, as a Sudanese human rights lawyer notes, the restoration of the security situation in Darfur and disarmament – also stipulated in the agreement – have not taken place: “What the people in Darfur want most is not a referendum but their being able to lead a decent and secure life in their villages of origin.”
Reports this week suggest that most Darfuris have refused to recognise the results – which is not entirely unexpected given the lead-up to the referendum. Back in February, opposition groups called on the population to boycott the vote, and during the voting period itself, witnesses reported that many people stayed home and some did not even know the referendum was taking place. The international community also had its doubts – for instance the United States expressed deep concern that both insecurity and inadequate registration would “prohibit sufficient participation.”
Was Darfur ready for a referendum?
The referendum, provided for under the terms of the DDPD, should have been held within a year of the signing of the document (i.e. prior to July 2012). Therefore the referendum was already several years late. Although there are a number of reasons for this, it seems clear that the decision to hold it now is no coincidence: Sudanese authorities have used the referendum as an opportunity to prove that, as reported by AFP, “the page on the Darfur crisis has now been turned.” This is intended to improve their relations with the international community – and help them justify their position that it is now time for the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeepers to “end its presence” in Darfur.
Yet all evidence from the ground contradicts the government’s narrative. In January, the Sudanese government launched a series of attacks, including aerial bombardments, on Darfur’s Jebel Marra; entire communities continue to be displaced, and there is still no real, sustainable return (as documented by IRRI in 2014). The UN in a recent report made reference to humanitarian organisations’ estimates that nearly 140,000 people have been displaced, of which almost 85,000 the majority of whom are women and children, have been displaced into North Darfur. Earlier this year the UN’s Security Council was unable to confirm the number of people displaced from West Darfur due to the government’s refusal to grant unrestricted access. Sudan has placed restrictions on UNAMID and humanitarian organisations when it comes to providing assistance to those in need, further exacerbating the situation.
All of this raises fundamental questions about the entire process. For instance, how were the views of those internally displaced represented in the vote? According to a woman from South Darfur recently interviewed by the Guardian “[w]e are displaced and most of us have no identity papers. How can we be actively involved in this referendum?” There is also the question of whether a referendum held in an environment not conducive for people to freely express themselves can be considered legitimate. For example, on 12 April – the second day of the vote – Sudan’s intelligence services detained two individuals in Khartoum and three in Darfur for protesting against the referendum.
Of course, none of this should surprise us. After all, turnout for last year’s controversial elections were low with the government announcing that voter turnout was 46% (excluding one district in Darfur and seven in Southern Kordofan due to insecurity). However, African Union observers placed the figure even lower stating “only a third of Sudan’s 13.3 million registered voters cast ballots in the general elections.” This discrepancy alone should bring the figure announced by the government for this referendum under scrutiny.
The low turnout and the boycott of the referendum clearly demonstrate that most Darfuris either did not support the referendum or felt that this was not the right time for it. The ongoing lack of space for civil society and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly also show Darfur was not ready.
Whether local concerns that the referendum could “provoke further clashes” remain to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the referendum is something of a smokescreen by the government to cover up the fact that Sudan has far more urgent issues to deal with – both in general and within the DDPD. It seems clear that the government has organised this vote in the hopes of convincing the international community that security has returned, that the problem in Darfur is “solved,” and that things should return to “business as usual.”
But the international community should not – in fact, cannot – fall for this ruse. Things might look like business as usual inasmuch as the Darfur crisis, (which, of course, is a symptom of a broader crises in governance across the country), has persisted for so long that it has become a kind of “new normal.” However this “new normal” has to be seen for what it is. Not only is violence in Darfur increasing, the Sudanese government has been responsible for the mass displacement of over one million people in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states. In addition, security services are increasingly using excessive force and placing restrictions on the media and opposition parties, as IRRI and its partners have recently detailed in a submission to Sudan’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council.
The referendum, therefore, is simply another pageant – albeit one with sinister undertones – in a broader strategy for survival and control by the government. This is not the moment to get soft. The upcoming Universal Periodic Review presents an opportunity to refocus the conversation, to acknowledge Sudan’s dismal human rights record, rather than allowing the rhetoric of normalisation to work. The international community needs to seize this opportunity to challenge the Sudanese authorities to end the violations and abuses it is committing, to uphold its international human rights obligations, and to grant displaced persons immediate access to humanitarian aid. Ultimately, human rights must be the priority.
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