Bashir’s Campaign of Fear

The South Sudanese will probably re-elect their incumbent in this month’s elections. But it’s not because they like him.


Pretend for a moment that you are from a place that has been terrorized off and on by its own government (a military regime that took power by coup) for more than two decades. In the 1980s, you were forced to flee your home when this government bombed your village and provided arms to some of your neighboring rival tribes. Now that the war has ended and you have moved back home, you have the chance to vote in the first multiparty elections your country has held in 24 years. In less than two weeks, you will cast your vote, issuing your verdict on the government that inflicted suffering and mass violence upon your people. The choice seems clear: You would vote it out. But maybe not — because this is Sudan. And here, the only conventional wisdom that seems to endure through successive coups, wars, and shifting political alliances is that the leaders who manage to hold on to power should never be underestimated.

Case in point is Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who in recent weeks has been on a whirlwind campaign tour of South Sudan — the very region that his government was at war with for some 20 years. He is stumping to win votes for the elections that will take place April 11 to 13. And instead of appealing to Southern voters with lofty promises of hospitals and schools, Bashir brings two central messages to the people of the South: a promise and a veiled threat.

Vote for me, he says, because I am the one who can uphold the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought an end to the conflict in 2005. There are two partners to the peace agreement, and I represent one of them. Then Bashir goes further: Without my support, it will be difficult to hold the referendum for South Sudan’s independence, slated for January 2011. In a region so devastated by war and eager not to return to it, that campaign message might well be enough to lure voters, especially because the main Southern candidate, Yasir Arman, pulled out on March 31, citing electoral irregularities. And the rest of the opposition parties announced on April 1 that they will likely boycott the elections.

The unfolding election campaign follows a pattern that has characterized much of Sudan’s independent history — namely, the forcible intimidation and marginalization of the South and other peripheral populations. In the most recent civil war between the South and Khartoum, rebels fought for the right of their people to participate equally, along with other marginalized groups in places like Darfur, in governing their country. They were supposed to have won it with the 2005 peace agreement, signed between Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the Southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM). That document was premised on the "democratic transformation" of Sudan, and nationwide elections were envisioned as a cornerstone of this process.

Five years later, that ideal has been shelved in favor of more pragmatic policies. Compromises on hotly contested CPA-related issues such as the national census have been reached through backroom deals by the ruling elites in the NCP and the SPLM, the so-called "peace partners." Yet even in spite of these recent deals, tensions between the North and South are reaching an all-time high. The idea that Bashir and his party could appeal to the same population whom they mercilessly bombed and drove from their homes for the better part of the past two decades arguably defies logic. And yet, for some Southerners, the decision to vote for Bashir was an easy one.

For starters, Bashir is simply better known than any of the other 12 presidential candidates. "People must vote for someone they know," said Patrick, a motorcycle taxi ("boda") driver in the Southern capital of Juba. As a child, Patrick fled the war with his family, ending up in a refugee camp in northern Uganda. He returned to Sudan along with more than 2 million of his fellow Southerners after the fragile peace was brokered. Still, he explained, "[We] can’t vote in the darkness."

After all, in his posters in Juba, Bashir looks friendly and nonthreatening, standing next to a white cow (a symbol of prosperity among some Southern tribes) or sporting a traditional Southern headdress. He is careful not to look like a dictatorial thug, a military strongman, or an internationally wanted criminal, all aspects of his character that he has tried to keep under wraps in his campaign.

Nor have other candidates been as aggressive in their campaigns as Bashir, who seems to be the only one to have shown up across the South — from the oil-rich town of Bentiu near the North-South border, to Western Equatoria province, to villages near the Ugandan border and, of course, Juba. Several weeks ago in that city, hundreds of people — supporters (paid or unpaid), curious onlookers, or both — gathered to watch Bashir sway his hips and wave his infamous cane atop a pickup truck, circling the John Garang Memorial Stadium, named for the hero of South Sudan, who led the rebel movement until his death in a 2005 helicopter crash.

Compare this with Arman, who has barely made a showing. The Northern Muslim candidate, who joined the SPLM rebels during the war and was selected as their presidential candidate, has focused his campaign largely in the North, visiting Darfur for example, in an attempt to explain why Northerners should vote for the Southern guerrillas-turned-politicians. "I think [Arman] feels he has the Southern vote in his pocket," an international official involved in the election process told me when Arman’s candidacy was announced. "He doesn’t think he needs to campaign in the South."

But Arman probably underestimated his rival. Until the SPLM withdrew Arman this week, only Arman and Bashir stood to gather significant percentages of votes in the South. And of these two candidates, Bashir has clearly been the contender who is aware of the dynamics and concerns of his South Sudanese constituency, though this is not to suggest that he has their best interests at heart.

In January, Bashir made news at the CPA anniversary celebration held in the Southern town of Yambio, claiming that he would be the first to recognize an independent South. The comment set the stage for his campaign, during which he has continued to paint himself as a "guarantor" of the referendum in his statements at rallies and interviews with the media.

What Bashir is suggesting is that if he does not remain president of Sudan, the CPA cannot stand — an insinuation not lost on anyone in South Sudan, even if it is technically untrue. The fundamental, overriding priority for Southerners is the right to vote for separation in next January’s self-determination referendum. Arguably, they want the referendum and the independence it might yield more than hospitals and schools. To get to that critical vote, they have to get through these current elections. And no one is eager to rock the boat.

Of course, there are many Southerners who will never forgive Bashir, partly because he represents the suffering that is the basis for the longstanding desire of the South to rule itself. But Bashir’s performance in the campaign suggests that he has what it takes to remain in power in Sudan — what scholar Alex de Waal has called an "unruly nation."

With the SPLM’s candidate Arman out of the presidential race, Bashir’s outright victory is assured. But with several of the main opposition parties having announced their decision to boycott the polls, the international community is even more likely to cry foul on the electoral process.

That doesn’t bode well for the Sudanese people, many of whom — especially in the South — will have voted for Bashir thanks to their own political acumen and will to survive. So when Bashir dances to victory in less than two weeks to the cheers of jubilant supporters — a victory he will surely claim as his mandate to rule all of Sudan — remember that nothing in this country is what it seems.

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