ELECTIONS IN SUDAN: A TRAVELOGUE FROM A DC OBSERVER
by Hodari Abdul-Ali, Muslim Link Contributing Writer
Alhamdulilah, I was blessed to be invited to be an observer of the historic elections that took place in Sudan April 11-15, 2010. What follows are highlights from a travelogue I kept while on this journey to Africa’s largest country at a special time in its history.
Sunday, 11 April 2010 7am – Khartoum, Sudan
Alhamdulilah, I am in the Grand Holiday Villa Hotel on Nile Avenue, already mid-way through my “Journey to Sudan”. I am safe, and I feel happy to be back in what has been my favorite African country.
This is my 6th time here. Previously I was here in 1994 as part of a Muslim-Christian delegation lead by Dr. Leamon Bates and Imam Ba’th. Imam W. D. Mohammed was there as well. We visited Khartoum and Wau, a town in southern Sudan. In 1995 I visited in Khartoum.
In 2002 the fact-finding mission I led went to Egypt and Sudan. The delegation included many Islamic and community leaders, including several from MANA, the Muslim Alliance in North America.
In 2005 I led a 2nd fact-finding delegation that visited Khartoum and Darfur. In August 2008, I visited in Khartoum. And here I am again!
One amazing thing about having returned so many times is seeing the progress over the years. There are more businesses, paved roads, newer cars and buses, etc, just since the 1 ½ years I was last here.
This has been an interesting trip so far, just travel wise. My body is still adjusting from the jet lag and the time zone changes. Alhamdulilah, I am in a comfortable room and haven’t had any problems.
I left DC from Dulles Airport at 6pm. My friend and colleague Bill Reed took me. I was already tired from having been up very early (3am) to prepare and then host my radio show on WPFW.
In my capacity as Executive Director of Give Peace A Chance Coalition (GPAC), I decided that it was worth the sacrifice and effort to be an observer here for such a historic event, the elections in Sudan. These are the first nation-wide elections in over 24 years, and today is the 1st day of 3 days of polling. There is much anticipation as this is a pivotal step in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed in 2005 ending a 2 decade long war between the north and south.
The western media has been very negative in spite of the fact that the campaigning was free of violence and that 16 million people have been registered to vote, and over 14,000 people are candidates! Folks who are salivating at the likelihood of the south separating in the referendum scheduled for next January are upset that President Bashir is far more popular than they want to acknowledge, and that the international monitors have basically said “so far, so good”.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is a confused lot, confounding its own supporters and critics alike. One top official, SPLM Secretary General Pagun Amum, stated that the party was boycotting the entire election process in northern Sudan. The next day, SPLM Chairman Silva Kiir Mayardit said they were not boycotting, only withdrawing their presidential candidate, Yasir Arman.
Conflicting reasons were given for this, but the bottom line is that they and some of the other opposition parties knew they were going to lose, so they cried foul. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) on the other hand, campaigned vigorously throughout the country. We shall see the results soon.
Alhamdulilah, each night I’ve had visits from friends here. I made it to jumaa prayer, and yesterday attended the press conference of the National Elections Commission held at Friendship Hall. The hotel I’m in also serves as the headquarters for the African Union election monitors, so I’ve had a chance to speak to some of them.
Monday, 12 April 2010 7:30am
Alhamdulilah, I’m in flight on my way to Juba for the 1st time! Although friends cautioned me about going, I want to see the capital of southern Sudan with my own eyes. On my first trip to Sudan in 1994, I visited Wau, the second largest town in the south. It was like going back in time 100 years. Next to Haiti, it was the poorest place I’d ever seen. I’m anxious to see what progress has been made. It is over 100 degrees in Khartoum, and I’m hoping Juba won’t be as hot.
Monday, 12 April 2010 3:00pm
I am back at the Juba “International Airport” after a brief visit here. Alhamdulilah I am heading back to Khartoum. A few hours here was enough. It was very hot and dusty and uncomfortable. There is very little here! Masha Allah.
I met several people here who were kind to me, including the Program Director for southern Sudan radio; the Deputy Chairman of the south Sudan High Election Committee; and the Imam of the large Kuwait Masjid.
I visited a polling site, toured a market, made salat at the masjid and had a very nice talk with the Imam about Islam in America and Juba. There is some building going on around town that I saw, but I don’t see much evidence of the billions of dollars of oil revenue at the disposal of the government of southern Sudan (GOSS).
The Imam, Abu Al-Qasim Muhammad, told me there are more Muslims than Christians in Juba, though the majority of people practice neither. He said that Muslims don’t have problems here.
Juba feels totally different from Khartoum. Khartoum is like New York City compared Juba being a town in rural West Virginia. I feel like I’m in East Africa (like Kenya or Uganda) and not in Sudan. The land is greener, but many folks are literally living in huts.
I can understand the frustration of the people of southern Sudan, for there is very little here. If Juba is the best, I can only imagine what the rest of the south looks like. The big question in my mind is what kind of leadership has the SPLM provided? What have they done with all of the money?
Tuesday, 13 April 2010 8pm
Alhamdulilah, I’ve left Khartoum and am on the plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a brief layover before traveling to Amsterdam. The flight there is 8 hrs, followed by an 8 hour layover, followed by an 8 hour flight to Washington. I feel good however, and am glad I’ve had a good trip thus far and learned a lot.
Today is day 3 of the historic elections in Sudan, the 1st multi-party exercise in 24 years. Because of logistical challenges, the voting has been extended two more days. Results are to be announced April 18th. Fortunately the process has been peaceful despite boycotts and complaints from opposition parties. President Al-Bashir seems headed for a landslide victory, which is why disorganized and disgruntled opposition parties and Machiavellian interests such as Save Darfur Coalition complained about rigging long before the election even began!
They have even complained about U.S. envoy Scott Gration, former President Jimmy Carter and other monitors for acknowledging that over all, the elections have been free and fair. Who could not expect logistical problems in a huge country with poor infrastructure outside of Khartoum, massive illiteracy, especially in southern Sudan, and one of the most complicated ballots imaginable?
This was the 1st time Silva Kiir Mayardit, SPLM Chairman and President of the GOSS had voted, and even he made a mistake! Voters in the 15 northern states have 8 ballots to contend with, and those in the 10 southern states have 12 ballots. Voters are electing the President, governors, members of parliament and state legislators. There would be complaints and difficulties in the U.S.!
The SPLM have proven to be a confusing and inefficient lot. Their secretary general states that the party would be boycotting all elections in the north, and then a day later, the chairman (President Kiir) states that there was only the boycott (withdrawal of their candidate for the presidency, Yasir Arman) of the top office. Conflicting reasons were given for these decisions, but clearly northern opposition parties were disappointed because they wanted a total boycott, and SPLM supporters felt betrayed because they wanted to vote for someone other than President Bashir.
Mind you, there are still 11 other candidates, and even Arman is still on the ballot! In the south, the SPLM have been heavy-handed against independent candidates, and are aghast that President Bashir is poised to win a lot of votes there. Kiir is expected to win easily for the presidency of the GOSS, and after the elections, the real drama is due to play out.
The referendum for southern succession, mandated by the CPA signed in 2005, as were these elections, will usher in a whole new set of negotiations between Khartoum and Juba. The vote is scheduled for January 2011, with separation a likelihood. There are many problems however. As much as the southerners want independence, they are clearly not ready.
I truly feel bad for the people of southern Sudan. The west wants to blame Khartoum for not making “unity attractive”, but the real reality is that the SPLM-lead GOSS has very little to show for the hundreds of billions of dollars it has gotten from oil revenues received during the 1st five years of the CPA, as well as international aid funds received.
President Bashir stated that he still intends to champion unity. Personally, I believe unity is the best solution for Sudan, and indeed Africa as a whole. More likely, however, is that the two sides will have to negotiate a “civil divorce”, as the oil in the south will still have to be shipped and refined in the north for the foreseeable future. There is big corruption in the south, and much tribal violence.
A third option is also being discussed, that of a confederation of some type. I’m reminded of the saying “be careful what you wish for, you might get it”. The US has been pushing for separation for so long now, and now that it is within reach, realizes that there may be more problems than it is worth.
Wednesday 12:30pm 14 April 2010 – In the air between Amsterdam and Washington, DC
Alhamdulilah, I’m on the final leg of my journey to Africa and back. The traveling has been a bit uncomfortable, but, alhamdulilah, I’ve not gotten ill. Just deprived of sleep!
After an overnight flight from Khartoum (with a stop in Addis Ababa) to Amsterdam, I ventured out into the city for the first time. I exchanged my dollars for euros, caught the train to Amsterdam Centraal , and walked around a bit. The weather there was chilly, especially after coming from a 100 degree F climate.
Amsterdam reminded me of London in a way, with its large public squares, broad and old buildings, quaint shops and restaurants. Being in Africa and Europe even this short time is a reminder that the world doesn’t all speak English. In fact, it seems to do quite well without it! I knew Khartoum was Arabic, and after a bit I was able to recall certain phrases. I expected more English in Juba, but they were quite content speaking Arabic and other languages there as well. Netherlands speaks Dutch, and at all the airports I traverse through, I heard a wide variety of languages. That aspect alone makes travel interesting.
I only spent a couple of hours in Amsterdam, and had a lunch of falafel and French fries at a Muslim owned café. Everything is expensive here, using $US.
I am truly looking forward to going home and being with my wife Ayana. It was a blessing to get away in spite of the challenges, and a blessing to get back into the routine. InshaAllah I will become more effective in my work, and stay focused on my variety of efforts, be they Dar Es Salaam Books, Give Peace A Chance Coalition, WPFW, etc.
I am grateful to Allah for all of my blessings. Overall, I am grateful to have been able to have been in Sudan during its landmark elections. I pray that Allah will bless the people there to solve their problems with fairness. InshaAllah, these elections will provide a new impetus, even though there were some shortcomings.
Hodari Abdul-Ali lives in DC where he is a well known Muslim activist.
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