May 2, 2010

Bank of Sudan

Several weeks ago the sun peaked through the clouds when Osman Taha, Sudan's second vice-president, claimed the main opposition bloc, Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), agreed to recognize the results of the April 11th election.

“We agreed to maintain an atmosphere of peace, as was the case during the election,” Taha said after talks with Salva Kiir, the SPLM leader.

Sudanese president Omar al-bashir would go on to “win” 68% of the vote. SPLM chief Yasser Arman, whose boycott touched off an opposition strike, banked 22% while Kiir, running as the south’s autonomous president, secured 93% of the southern vote.

Though Taha provoked a degree of skepticism from us, it makes sense for the SPLM to lie low all the way to the referendum in 2011. They’ve consolidated power in the south and are ready to make a serious run at secession. If incumbent Omar al-Bashir manipulates the outcome any further then they can cry foul, but too early in the revolutionary cycle would likely backfire.

"There is no link between the election and the referendum," insisted Arman despite all evidence to the contrary.

“I urge all of us, candidates, agents of the candidates, those who have lost, to use the respective institutions designed to address complaints,” Anne Itto, the SPLM’s deputy secretary- general, told reporters. “We need peace in order to get to the next stage.”

Silent opposition to the electoral process and confirmation that the SPLM’s main target is the 2011 referendum - Sudan’s Judgment Day.

When determining outcomes three present themselves: a fair election that grows “democracy” under al-Bashir, a fraudulent election that’s better than the chaos of no election, and the elements of another round of civil war. In the first corner sit Sudan’s government, the AU, and China, whose monitors determined the election "smooth and orderly."

Cross out the first possibility.

With the last possibility clearly not the West’s intention, it quickly becomes apparent that the West and most of Sudan’s parties were and still are hoping for a “Goldilocks” outcome. This alone shows how helpless the situation may actually be.

We can’t say it any better than Ahmed Elzobier in The Sudan Tribune:

“The United States, the CPA’s main sponsor, and the European Union are worried that their investment in peace in Sudan may be lost to renewed conflict or instability. The bailout is simple; support the SPLM/NCP to muddle through no matter how flawed or sham the elections may be. ‘This Is Africa (TIA) you know,’ some argue patronizingly, there is no ‘perfect election,’ it will be ‘a step forward given Sudan’s context.’ The ultimate aim is to achieve a ‘milestone,’ that it keeps the SPLM/NCP in power until 2011 is merely an unfortunate side issue. The US State Department assistant secretary Philip Crowley was asked in a press briefing last week whether the U.S. is going to be ready to sign off on the results no matter how flawed the actual process. He answered, ‘What’s the alternative?’”

Promoting international law doesn’t mix with excusing Sudan’s election for not meeting “international standards,” but in a display of geopolitical irony Sudan has become the US financial system - too big to fail. Leaving aside the EU, which was only slightly less congratulatory, America is caught in the trap as prime sponsor of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 to “end” the civil war. congratulatory

Like the SPLM, Washington is just trying to hold the ship together until 2011.

A campaign this deep began back in 2005, as soon as the CPA was inked. Then president George Bush was already attracting criticism for inaction on Darfur following his infamous “never again” quote in Rwanda. The plot continued as then-Senator Barack Obama vowed to hold Sudan accountable to international law.

This allowed him to ride his Democratic base’s expectations all the way through the presidential election, though Save Darfur has wised up.

Gabriel Stauring of Stop Genocide Now, among others, explained after the election, “Marginalized people in Sudan are being left behind and unprotected, in this rush to meet a time-line. U.S. Sudan policy is, in effect, promoting abuses and impunity, when it does not go beyond statements of regret and move towards true consequences and pressures.”

The US campaign kicked into high gear during the weeks before the election. As southern political parties cried foul and al-Bashir threatened to expel international monitors, Washington played down the storm clouds during negotiations inside Sudanese politics and back home in briefing rooms.

The White House placed its faith in al-Bashir, an international war criminal, and promised to hold him accountable if he corrupted the election.

In the days after the election a predictable message started taking shape to counter Save Darfur, a message tested in the White House and State Department for months. Though Sudan’s elections didn’t meet “international standards,” it was “peaceful, meaningful, and a very important step.” The White House’s response took on a pattern familiar to Afghanistan.

Secretary Clinton and Gates were fond of reminding Americans back home that our democracy has flaws too.

The day after meeting with Sudan envoy General Scott Gration, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released the White House’s official statement. To its credit it accurately reflects the US position: crumbs of “criticism” followed by champagne. In other words the Goldilocks outcome.

Forget the ballot stuffing and stealing, "disappearances," opposition parties threatening protests, and having their international travels monitored by the NCP, who fears their communications with the international media.

Or, for what it’s worth, a Sudan Tribune poll that asked 4382 respondents: Do you feel that opposition allegations of electoral fraud has any merits? Out of 4382 respondents 67.7% said yes, 23.3% said no, and 8.9% said maybe.

To be fair though Sudan appears to have avoided a worst case scenario in the near term. Western officials are right that the election could have gone even worse, for now. That could also be the flaw though - April’s election acting as a quick fix with potentially fatal aftereffects. What happens when 2011 does come?

Will America’s investment pay off or crash?

US officials portray an outward sense of confidence unjustified by the Sudan’s present state. In Washington’s mind splitting northern from southern Sudan is the endgame, which it readily admits to. In theory al-Bashir will weaken political and economically when he loses the south and possibly Abyei, home to most of Sudan’s oil reserves.

Crowley said many of those elected in the Sudanese poll, however flawed it may have been, would decide whether, "we have a credible referendum process that, quite honestly, is likely to yield the emergence of a new country."

"So while we understand that there were flaws and failures in terms of this electoral process, we will recognize that there is a lot of work to be done," he said. "The United States will continue to work with the government in the north, the government in the south, as we move forward with ... the vitally important referendum that’ll happen in January of next year."

This strategic objective only coincidentally coincides with the southern opposition.

Another strategy could be outright appeasement. The West’s policy according to Louise Roland-Gosselin of The Guardian: “rather than ruffling Bashir's feathers now, we should congratulate him for how far he has come, in the hope that this will make him more conciliatory when it comes to agreeing border demarcations or oil-sharing revenue with south Sudan.”

This sounds feasible too, though we favor the first strategy as real US policy. Either though chases a Goldilocks ending that appears destined to prolong the suffering of those in northern Sudan and especially Darfur. Washington refuses to address the very real possibility that al-Bashir won’t allow the south to secede.

We understand that, rather than pick a premature fight now, the SPLM is readying for war in 2011. They know al-Bashir won’t let them go so easily. America could be acting on the SPLM’s orders, hoping for a peaceful resolution in public and planning for a military contingency in secret.

But the same can be predicted from the north.

Though plenty of examples between Sudan’s campaign and election demonstrate that Washington realizes the dangerous bet it placed, none reveal the true gap like its reaction to al-Bashir’s “victory.” Announced last Monday, seven day have passed days without a statement from the White House and State Department.

Defending al-Bashir was a lot easier before the election than it will be afterward, especially if he doesn’t pay Obama back.

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