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AU Security Body Upbeat on Sudan Election Prospects

Africa's top peace and security body has given a cautiously optimistic assessment of the outlook for Sudan's upcoming national elections.

The challenges remain enormous, but a month before voting begins, the African Union Peace and Security Council says Sudan's elections for president and parliament have a reasonable chance of success. That assessment came after the Council heard from a panel that recently visited all regions, including violence-prone Darfur, and the oil-rich south, which is looking ahead to a referendum on independence next January.

Zambia's AU ambassador Albert Muchanga, who holds the Council's rotating presidency, says members are concerned about what he calls 'gaps' on such issues as security. He told reporters much depends on the viability of two recent accords, a cease-fire between the Khartoum government and Darfur's largest rebel group, and an election code of conduct.

"Everybody observed gaps, and indicated movement towards meeting those gaps," said Albert Muchanga. "Let's focus on the two agreements that have been signed. What we should be concerned is if they are going to be implemented."

The next important step could come in the Qatari capital, Doha, where negotiators are trying to expand the recently signed Darfur cease-fire to include groups that have not signed. Sudan's Deputy AU Ambassador Akuie Bona Malwal, says all eyes will be on Doha for a deal that would ensure the cease-fire extends to all of Darfur.

"It depends on what happens in Doha," said Akuie Bona Malwal. "If they sign something tomorrow, people will be able to let them participate, and by the way, it's only in western Darfur, that's where there's so much insecurity, the bulk of Darfur are almost ready to participate in it, so it's just how do you now give that word that this is a comprehensive election in Darfur, because that little part has to participate in the election, but that depends on what the outcome of Doha would [be]."

Ambassador Malwal, who is from southern Sudan, says there is excitement in the south about the prospect of the first nationwide election in nearly 24 years, despite concerns about security and travel in the vast region.

He says much of the excitement is because southerners see this vote as an important step on the path to the long-awaited referendum on secession, as spelled out in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 22-years of war between north and south.

"The election is part of the CPA, and South Sudan is interested in implementation of the CPA, therefore they would be interested to participate in the election," said Malwal. "Without the election there cannot be a referendum next year, so that's why we are doing it."

Diplomats say any deal in Doha would have to come within the next few days to take effect in time for the elections, which begin April 11.

Several international mediators are involved in the Doha talks, including U.S. Special envoy Scott Gration, who was reported en route to the Qatari capital Wednesday.