Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has threatened to expel foreign election observers for “interference” after a prominent US-based observer mission suggested “minor delays” to the April 11 election date to create better conditions for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center, which is one of many groups invited by Mr. Bashir's government to observe the country's vote – said that the election process thus far was “mostly peaceful” but warned that “the process remains at risk on multiple fronts including the ability of candidates to campaign freely,” and suggested that elections be delayed briefly.
Bashir: 'We will cut their fingers off'
In response, Bashir issued his own warning.
“We brought these organizations from outside to monitor the elections, but if they ask for them to be delayed, we will throw them out,” he said at an election rally in the eastern Sudanese city of Port Sudan. “Any foreigner or organization that demands the delay of elections will be expelled sooner rather than later. We wanted them to see the free and fair elections, but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes, and throw them out."
Few elections in Sudan have as much riding on them as do the upcoming April 11 elections. The first truly multiparty elections since 1986 will determine the new president of the country, the president of South Sudan's semi-autonomous government, delegates to the National Assembly, 25 state assemblies (and the South Sudanese assembly), and 25 governorships.
This vote is seen as a crucial test of a January 2005 peace agreement between mainly Arabic northern Sudan and mainly Christian southern Sudan, which fought a two-decade long civil war that claimed the lives of some 1.9 million people.
If southern Sudanese do not feel that this election is fair, they will almost certainly secede from Khartoum’s control in a referendum, scheduled for 2011. Maintaining the current pace of events is crucial, experts say.
Part of a sensitive peace process
“This election is not to be taken in isolation; this is part of a process that includes a referendum over secession, and that process is inalterable,” says John Ryle, chairman of the Rift Valley Institute, a London-based think tank that focuses on east African issues. “If the referendum is not held, there could be a war.”
The Carter Center's report is not provocative, either in its language or its message. But President Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-party backed coup in 1989, has long portrayed himself as a nationalist keen to protect Sudan’s sovereignty, and within the past year he has expelled foreign aid organizations from the country for “spying” in the troubled Darfur region.
Crimes against humanity?
Mr. Bashir is currently facing charges of crimes against humanity, issued by the International Criminal Court, for his direction of a counter-insurgency campaign in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, where some 300,000 people have been killed, and another 2.7 million have been forced out of their homes by conflict.
Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have warned that Bashir’s government continues to harass opposition candidates, and that opposition members do not have access to state run media in the same way that ruling party candidates do.
But Ibrahim Gambari, the head of the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, told the Associated Press that security would not be “a major consideration,” given that voter registration – even in insecure areas such as Darfur – was concluded peacefully, despite rebel calls for boycotts.