Local election in northern Sudan deepens North-South rift

Northern Sudan's ruling party candidate won a gubernatorial election over a candidate from South Sudan's ruling party in a vote that party rejected as fraudulent.

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    Mukhtar Elassum, a member of Sudan's National Election Commission, speaks during the announcement of the results of South Kordofan's election for governor on May 15. Sudan said on Sunday the northern ruling party won the election in the north's main oil state after a vote the south said was rigged, creating a fresh flashpoint before southern secession in July.
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From May 2- 4, residents of Southern Kordofan State in North Sudan voted in an election for governor. The outcome – a triumph for the ruling party candidate, and outrage among the defeated candidate’s supporters – threatens to further strain relations between North and South Sudan, and also to increase political tensions in North Sudan itself.

The contest primarily involved two contenders. The first was Ahmed Haroun, a member of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) who served as Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs from 2006 to 2009. In 2007, the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Haroun with committing war crimes in Darfur and issued a warrant for his arrest. Despite this, in 2009 Haroun was appointed governor of Southern Kordofan. The second contestant was Abdelaziz al-Hilu, the state’s deputy governor and a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that controls the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

Haroun won. Many news outlets are concentrating on his ICC indictment, but in my view the more relevant story for Sudan itself is how the outcome of the election will affect relations between the NCP and the SPLM. These two parties are not only set to govern neighboring countries, they are also competitors for the future of North Sudan. The bulk of the SPLM’s strength is found in South Sudan, but a significant component of the SPLM will remain in the North, where it hopes, as the “SPLM-N,” to speak for North Sudan’s marginalized groups. The SPLM-N saw the gubernatorial elections in Southern Kordofan as a major step toward reinforcing its strength in the North, and also toward establishing political pluralism there.

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This helps explain why the SPLM-N has reacted with such anger to the National Electoral Commission’s announcement of Haroun’s victory:

“We will not accept these results because the vote was rigged,” said Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM in the north.

(Arman, it should be noted, was the SPLM’s presidential candidate in the elections of April 2010, prior to the referendum that gave South Sudan its independence. Arman is a Northerner.)

From the same article, we hear further analysis of the SPLM’s feelings:

The SPLM fought the north for two decades before a 2005 peace deal, which paved the way for independence for the largely Christian and animist South Sudan from the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

But many residents of the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan also fought for the SPLM and it is feared they could take up arms once more.

“These people were fighting for 20 years and their aspirations are not fulfilled,” Hafiz Mohamed of the Justice Africa think-tank told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

“The way things are going, it’s leading to a deadlock, which will end up with people carrying arms to release their frustration,” he said.

“If it starts, no-one can stop it – it will affect the south, it will affect the north. With the war in Darfur, we are heading for dangerous times.”

The BBC has more analysis of how the Southern Kordofan elections will feed North-South tensions here.

These tensions are already partly confirming fears expressed by the international community before, during, and after the elections. The Carter Center, the UN, and US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman all urged the different factions in Southern Kordofan to refrain from violence, though some violence did occur. On May 10, the Sudan Troika (United States, United Kingdom, and Norway) issued a statement on Sudan’s crises that included remarks on Southern Kordofan:

We welcome the peaceful completion of polling for Southern Kordofan’s elections, but are concerned about rising tensions in the state due to a delay in the announcement of preliminary results. We call on local and national leaders to take immediate steps to improve the security situation and exercise control over all armed security elements. We also call on the parties to work together to maintain calm as the preliminary results are announced and to refrain from prematurely declaring electoral victories. The parties should work together to resolve any election disputes peacefully through the courts. In order to maintain stability and promote long-term cooperation, they should build an inclusive government no matter the outcome. It is critical that the elections pave the way for the start of Southern Kordofan’s popular consultations, which remain an important outstanding element of the CPA.

Journalist Alan Boswell, writing before the elections, noted both international concern and the simultaneous presence of international “fatigue” after “intervening in Sudan’s myriad crises.” This fatigue has meant that Southern Kordofan’s problems have largely been overshadowed by other concerns relating to Sudan, such as Washington’s focus “on normalizing battered relations with Sudan’s northern regime and bolstering the nascent government in the south.” If matters heat up in Southern Kordofan, and if NCP-SPLM relations deteriorate more broadly, we will see how the international community reacts, both to events in Sudan and to its own fatigue.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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