Sudanese leader's election win may speed country's dissolution

McClatchy NewspapersApril 26, 2010 

JUBA, Sudan — Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted on war-crimes charges, on Monday was declared the overwhelming winner of the country's first multiparty elections in 24 years.

The outcome strengthens Bashir's grip on power, but the election — marred by opposition boycotts and widespread allegations of fraud over five days of chaotic polling and an opaque 11-day vote-counting process — only deepened the country's divisions, and is likely to further the fragmentation of what's widely considered a failed state.

Bashir claimed a landslide 6.9 million votes, compared with 2.2 million for Yasir Arman, a Arab candidate from the north who'd withdrawn from the race and boycotted the election.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was in the southern capital of Juba to observe the election, said it wouldn't meet international standards as free, fair and timely. However, he added, "We have to remember that they have not had an election since 1986. And, secondly, you are in a geographic area that is enormous, one of the largest nations on earth, highly divided by war for 25 years and now divided geographically and politically into the northern and southern regions."

Sudan appears to be entering its endgame as a single nation, and is expected soon to split in two. Whether this rupture occurs in war or in peace is a major question.

A 2003 uprising in Sudan's western region of Darfur has left some 300,000 dead, and led to the indictment of Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. That conflict continues.

A lesser-known rebellion in the nation's east threatens to flare up again amid widespread discontent with an unimplemented 2006 peace agreement.

In both areas, perceived electoral manipulation and outright fraud did little to bring democratic legitimacy to Bashir's rule.

It's the rift that runs between the nation's Arabized, Muslim north and black Christian and animist south, however, that seems likely to crack completely. Two long rebellions in southern Sudan resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million people, mostly southerners, and that's where Bashir first tried the crude counterinsurgency techniques that later gained international condemnation in Darfur.

The elections were part of a north-south peace process mandated in the U.S.-brokered 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Under it, Bashir's Khartoum regime granted mostly autonomous control over southern Sudan to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

Bashir's key concession to the movement under the pact was a referendum on southern secession, set for next January. These elections were to give Sudan a chance to be a united, democratic nation before the south could exercise its exit clause, and for this reason the international community, the guarantors of the peace deal, backed the polling.

The vote may have had the opposite effect, however. Southerners overwhelmingly supported Arman, suggesting that the Khartoum government's new mandate probably will do little to dissuade the south from going its own way.

The election's irregularities and logistical missteps were particularly damaging in the south. Residents were told to cast their ballots where they'd registered to vote, but voter lists had been subdivided across numerous polling stations with no system to help them locate the correct ones. The region's own vice president had to go to five polling centers before he found the right one, according to his wife. In some cases voters' names seemed to have disappeared altogether.

If it's given the chance, the south now is widely expected to split from the rest of Sudan, if the north will allow that to happen peacefully. The main issue is oil.

An estimated 82 to 95 percent of the country's oil fields are in the south, and southern crude is the lifeblood of Bashir's regime. Oil revenue accounted for 60 percent of Sudan's budget in 2008, and provided 95 percent of the nation's export income.

"Political survival is going to come into this equation for Khartoum, given their reliance on oil," said Zach Vertin, an analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya, for the research center International Crisis Group.

Both sides split the revenue from the southern oil fields. If the oil is all-important to Khartoum, the south's dependency is almost total. Around 98 percent of the semiautonomous government's annual income comes from this 50 percent cut.

This mutual dependency, however, also could be the two sides' biggest incentive to see a peace deal through. A pragmatic pact that ensures the northern regime a continued flow of oil revenue could buy south Sudan its freedom, a "crude," some say, but effective way of achieving it.

Neither side can afford a major disruption in oil flows, and if conflict erupts, it almost certainly will revolve around gaining control over the rich borderland areas. The two sides already are jockeying for position in case things go wrong. A report this month from the Geneva-based research group Small Arms Survey warns that "the entire border area has become heavily militarized and unstable, as both sides compete for strategic resources."

A deal needs to be made before the referendum, Vertin said. "If there isn't an 'in principle' agreement on both oil sharing and the border, it isn't as if those northern security forces are just going to pick up and go home, and they will probably maintain their control of a good amount of the oil fields," he said.

The north and the south have been rearming covertly since the end of the peace deal, but the southern Sudan army remains a guerrilla force compared with the growing military power of the north, strengthened by arms flows from China.

The fallout from the other key rifts could prove the determining factor. Bashir's northern opponents, having failed to dislodge him through the ballot box, may try to combine their drive against him with the rebellion in Darfur and the re-emerging conflict in the east.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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