Sudan / AFP
Sudan’s conflict-hit Darfur region starts voting on Monday on whether to unify its five states, a long-standing demand of rebels seeking greater autonomy, but ongoing instability means insurgents are boycotting the referendum.
The three-day vote is expected to maintain the five-state system, which President Omar Al Bashir’s ruling party says is more efficient but which observers say gives Khartoum greater control over Darfur.
The ethnic minority insurgents who rebelled against the Arab-dominated government in 2003 claiming their region was being marginalised say the vote cannot be fair because of ongoing fighting.
But Bashir has insisted the situation is stable enough for voting to go ahead.
“It is the people of Darfur who choose whether they want states or one region and we are holding this referendum so that no one else can come and say we want this or that,” Bashir said last week. His ruling National Congress Party says five state governments are better able to care for the people of Darfur than a single administration.
Darfur was a united region from its incorporation into Sudan in 1916 until 1994, when Bashir divided it into three states, adding two more in 2012. Holding the vote while the government controls much of Darfur and is able to mobilise its supporters may also be a bid to counter the rebels’ calls for a united, autonomous Darfur.
“The government can say: ‘We’re not discussing any more because the referendum has decided so’,” independent analyst Magdi al-Gizouli said.
The government has also stressed the vote is one of the terms of a 2011 peace deal between Khartoum and some rebel groups.
Some groups that signed the treaty have started campaigning for a single region, but other rebels that didn’t sign have said the result will be meaningless because unrest wracking the region means many —particularly the displaced—will not vote, while the government will mobilise its supporters in state capitals and large towns. While the insurgency is less intense than at the peak of the conflict, clashes occasionally flare, as happened in January in the isolated Marra mountain range.
Heavy fighting has forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes, joining a pre-existing population of some 2.5 million people in Darfur who were already displaced, the United Nations says.
The insurgents support a referendum in principle but say the vote has been chosen to suit the government.
“The referendum, although it is stipulated, is not a priority and the government is keen to seize it and ignore what is more important” in the peace treaty, said Abdullah Mursal, a leader in the Sudan Liberation Army faction headed by MinniMinnawi.