Sudan: The right terms for a wrong engagement
Sudan: The right terms for a wrong engagement
After Six Months of War, Sudan is Disintegrating
After Six Months of War, Sudan is Disintegrating
Op-Ed / Africa 2 minutes

Sudan: The right terms for a wrong engagement

The EU is wrong to be sending observers to Sudan's sham elections. The EU's challenge now is to retain some credibility.

The decision by the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to send an EU observation mission to monitor Sudan's elections in April this year is a triumph of hope over experience. Observers will not prevent the ruling National Congress Party from rigging the process, and, worse, their presence risks legitimising a regime headed by an indicted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir.

Ideally, these polls would be delayed to improve the electoral environment, particularly in the north. But with the key political parties determined to press ahead and international partners unwilling or unable to stop them, EU observers should at least understand what they are walking into.

First, they have to realise they will not deter massive electoral fraud, since so much cheating has already taken place. The electoral laws favour Bashir's party, which manipulated last year's census to inflate the number of constituencies supporting it and engineered voter registration in Darfur so that only a fraction of that war-ravaged region's three million displaced people will be able to cast a ballot. The National Electoral Commission and state electoral committees, all of which are dominated by Bashir's party, have also drawn districts throughout northern Sudan that empower Arabs loyal to the party and exclude tribes that have borne the brunt of Khartoum's brutality.

The observer mission will struggle to detect new fraud. A group of about 100 EU observers scattered around the largest country in Africa is destined to fail. Insecurity and lack of infrastructure will prevent them from reaching many areas, but even where they can be deployed, observers unable to speak Arabic or other Sudanese languages and with no prior experience in the country will be easily outsmarted by Bashir's National Congress Party. A handful of foreign monitors is no match for a sophisticated machinery of control over a local administration that is well-practised in using intimidation and violence against its opponents.

The European Commission's foreign policy credibility is very much on the line here. So is Ashton's. Having chosen to send observers to do an almost impossible task, the EU now has to make the best of a bad decision. Appointing a strong head of mission with experience of observing difficult elections would be a start, but the EU also then has to defend the independence of that mission. There will be pressure from outside and from within for observers to pull punches and overlook the glaring flaws in the election process. This must be firmly resisted.

The key moment will come when the mission has to formally assess the elections according to international standards and domestic law, delivering a rapid verdict on the election's credibility. A well-researched statement grounded in fact can calm post-election tensions or boost credible claims of malpractice, increasing pressure for such complaints to be addressed fairly. But a statement based only on a limited knowledge of the situation risks whitewashing a flawed process. In Sudan, that would mean endorsing the inevitable re-election of Bashir and further undermining the stability of the country.

In both its statement and its subsequent more detailed report, the EU observation mission will have to give a blunt assessment of all the election's flaws. It should not simply focus on the polling irregularities. Observers will have to condemn the skewed playing-field and the National Congress Party's manipulation of population data, districting and voter registration. Given draconian security laws and restrictions on the rights of Darfuri voters, EU observers should look beyond technical issues and denounce the repressive environment in which this election is being held.

And if Sudan's opposition parties ultimately reject the rules set by Khartoum and decide to boycott the elections, the EU should immediately suspend its operation and demand a review of the electoral environment.

Sending this observer mission was the wrong decision. But now that it is going ahead, it must at least avoid undermining the EU's credibility internationally, and further destabilising an already shaky Sudan.

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