The die may have been cast in Sudan as Southern Sudanese take to the streets demanding electoral reform and independence, following the arrest of their leaders in Khartoum. The office of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir’s party in the south was burnt, protesters were arrested and tensions are reportedly rising.
Analysts say the argument and crackdown of protestors over electoral laws is an unambiguous sign of the north-south fissure. Three southern leaders and dozens of protesters were detained on Monday in a crackdown against a pro-electoral reform demonstration. South Sudan Peoples liberation Movement (SPLM) secretary general Pagan Amum was arrested along with his deputy Yasir Arman and Abbas Gumma, a state minister in the interior ministry.
“These arrests are not only provocative but unjustified, because the interim national constitution of the Sudan and the CPA allow for peaceful and democratic procession,” Southern president Salva Kiir was quoted as he condemned the arrests.
Tensions between SPLM and the National Congress Party (NCP) has resurfaced as national elections draw near. A 2005 peace agreement had resolved the 22 year way between Northern and southern Sudan. Reform and changes to the electoral law were key aspects of the 2005 peace accord which ended the war regarded as Africa’s longest-running civil war.
The forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections which would be Sudan’s first multi-party polls in 24 years, are expected to pave the way for a referendum in 2011 in which the south will choose whether to become independent, as stipulated under the 2005 deal. But the SPLM and the NCP have failed to agree on changes to the election laws.
In regard to the call for electoral reform, as many as 20 opposition parties invited supporters to gather in front of the Khartoum parliament building to demand electoral reform. As demonstrators marched through Khartoum and its neighbouring city Omdurman they waved placards and chanted: “We want our freedom.” Conversely, dozens of other protesters were detained, and the SPLM members have since accused the NCP of suppressing free speech.
“We call upon all Sudanese people to remain calm… and exercise their constitutional rights of expression within the law,” Kiir added.
Prior to Mondays protests and arrests, however, police had announced that the demonstration to push for reforms ahead of national elections next year and an independence referendum for south Sudan scheduled for 2011 would be considered illegal.
No free and fair elections
According to Human Rights Watch, Sudan does not have the conditions for free and fair elections. The Human Rights report states that that armed conflict in Darfur is unresolved, and the National Congress party-led government in Khartoum has stepped up repressive tactics throughout the northern states with arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as censorship and harassment of journalists and activists.
Also, divisions within the southern party of SPLM is reported to increase the sense of volatility in southern Sudan where a rise in ethnic violence has left some 1,200 dead this year alone. According to experts, the security problems in the south could interrupt the election process.
Pagan Amum, Yassir Arman and Abbas Gumma from the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were freed after a few hours. They celebrated their release at the movement’s headquarters in Khartoum along with thousands of supporters. A referendum on whether the south should secede is due in 2011.
Dr. James Smith, the chief executive of the Aegis trust, a British group that campaigns against crimes against humanity told reporters that: “The tensions that flared between north and south Sudan in the wake of these arrests are a warning sign that the international community cannot afford to ignore. Even if the status quo can be maintained for the moment, in the absence of strong, sustained and intelligent international diplomacy, Sudan could well return to all-out war by the time the referendum is due on southern independence.”
Ahead of the registration exercise, which ends this week, experts also pointed out that another point of contention was the registration of expatriates, with the south pushing for flexible arrangements that would allow as many people as possible to register. The north favors more restrictive procedures as it fears that Sudanese living abroad would favor the SPLM. The elections and the referendum in particular could lead to renewed conflict and hold the potential for a humanitarian disaster.