Sudan's Elections: Teaching Elephants to Fly
Most recently, I shared a table with a Sudanese diplomat in a social function in Juba. The EU-based diplomat was on special leave to enable him to join Salva Kiir's election campaign team. Learning that, all the eyes on the table turned on him. Quizzed as to what he thought about the impending elections, the diplomat was brutally honest: "It is the first time in history that a guerrilla movement is asked to practice democracy in so short a time", he said. I was quick to respond: "what about ANC in South Africa? Was it not a guerrilla movement like SPLM and yet did not have problem contesting elections and practicing democracy?" I asked.
The diplomat calmly explained that considering the baseline or the legacy SPLM is building on, especially where South Sudan was five years ago, to be asked to practice true democracy now is quite a tall order. Many heads on the table nodded in a reserved approval. I liked his honesty. And in a way, this election is really about teaching old elephants to fly. I will explain my sweeping statement.
For starter, the ruling parties themselves, Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM), and National Congress (NCP) are not inherently democratic by their very history. There is one big difference, though: SPLM has claimed all along that its main aim is to transform Sudan into a secular democratic state. Yet as a movement, it never practiced democracy. While fighting for democracy, the SPLM leaders, as read through their actions and occasional utterances, never believed democracy is an effective tool of decision-making when waging a liberation war. Alternative views or visions were never tolerated, let alone any form of criticism no how matter mild or constructive it may be. And this was one of the reasons for the many splits the movement suffered and still is stalked by it to this day. Yet, it does not stop SPLM supporters and Sudanese people from holding SPLM to ransom for its long advocated slogans.
NCP, too, has been fighting for an Islamic theocracy with no mention of democracy. And for two decades, NCP has thrived on repressive dictatorship. To have their way, they built torturing houses that have become popularised in Sudan's political vocabulary as "Ghost Houses". This is the baseline for the two ruling parties. None has a track record of democracy.
Outside the corridors of power, are some of Sudan political parties with a long history of contesting elections and practicing democracy at certain times since independence. As all know, Sudan has seen power changing hands many times between democratically elected governments and despotic military juntas, the NCP regime being the most repressive and yet most versatile dictatorship to rule in modern history of Sudan. Manned by a bunch of educated elites, they bend and twist without breaking in order to survive. Overall, Sudan has been under dictatorship more than it has been ruled by a democracy.
Democracy, therefore, if I may say, was a kind of heaven we longed for, yet never experienced in real life. Although war and oppression has pushed millions of Sudanese to seek refuge in democracies of Europe, North America, and Australia. This author spent nearly two decades in Britain and had only returned to Sudan two years ago, having experienced real democracy for 17 years in the UK. And speaking from this experience, democracy as such is not an unattainable utopia as we would like sometimes to think. It is not defect free either, but it is by far the most natural and humane alternative to despotism that Sudan and most of Middle East are accustomed to. The coming elections may attest to that.
Back to the point of this article, here we are asking giant elephants that never flied nor danced in their entire lives to do just that. We have two powerful ruling parties (SPLM and NCP) controlling both military and financial resources, and state machinery of the country; and we are asking them to contest democratic elections while creating a levelled playing field for all and protecting the rights of all.
European Union is sending 130 election monitors (56 of them already in the country), Carter Centre has already deployed 60 monitors, while the League of Arab States is planning to deploy 60 of its own monitors. Surrounded by ubiquitous means of transmitting information from mobile phone to internet, the pressure for all to ensure a "fair and free elections" has never been high.
Both the SPLM and NCP have assured the Sudanese that they are working hard towards fair and free elections. Like rats playing a game with cats, it could go ugly anytime when a rat gets on cat's sensitive nerve. That is exactly what happened when a group of youth formed NGO organisation in Khartoum calling themselves "Girivina", meaning "fed up", began to distribute leaflets calling for voting out of NCP regime and organising public rallies. Many of their members were arrested and tortured on charge of causing public disorder. No one believes the government's accusation. It is all about election heat getting to them, and stretching their patience beyond breaking point. And so the smiley Omer Al Bashir could in no time turned into an angry boar, causing all the rabbits in the election valley to disappear into holes, shaking with terror.
This is also true of SPLM in South Sudan. Having shown good faith by according the only other candidates for presidency of South Sudan, Dr. Lam Akol, the protection of the state security forces, and having issued guidelines on code of good practice, there are incidents that showed the party's intolerance to ideal of democracy such as competition and freedom of expression.
Lam Akol, the leader of SPLM Democratic Changed accused some of SPLA forces in Malakal of tearing down his party's posters and called for more discipline in the SPLA once elected. This generated an angry reaction from the army spokesperson General Kuol Diem, who called for the presidential candidate to "shut up" and avoid talking about SPLA. That in turn sparked public controversy about the constitutionality of asking a presidential candidate to shut up.
Also, in Unity State last week, there were clashes in the stadium between supporters of incumbent governor, Taban Deng Gai, and his independent contender, Angelina Riek Teny. Presidential candidate and incumbent President of South Sudan was in town to launch his electoral campaign. Seeing the clashes, Kiir flew back to Juba without addressing the rally, the attendants of which were united in Kiir's candidacy and that of Yasir Arman but disagreed on who should be elected as the next governor of Unity State.
In Western Equatoria state, there had been raids on the lodge of Joseph Bakosoro, the independent candidate for post of the governor. Cars were taken away by police and body guards arrested and later released. It was not clear who was behind this harassment but not too hard to form opinion as to who might be responsible for it. But within minutes of the incident, one of his supporters sent an urgent message to an internet discussion group, and quickly generated heated debate about the fairness and freedom of candidates for right to campaign without fear.
All in all, this election is putting Sudan's "test tube" democracy on trial. We can see that the parties are trying their best to rise to the challenge. It is a matter of weeks to see whether or not Sudan elephants have been taught to dance and fly.