The African Union panel on Darfur led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki is taking on a new mission: trying to foster a transition to democracy in Sudan. The panel's first order of business will be to ensure credible national elections next April.
The nine-member Mbeki panel got down to work meeting officials representing military and diplomatic organizations hoping to help Sudan through a difficult period ahead.
In addition to the ongoing troubles in Darfur, the country faces the challenge of holding general elections next April to choose a president and parliament. That vote, Sudan's first democratic election in 24 years, is to be followed nine months later by a referendum on southern secession
A former southern rebel group has said it plans to field a candidate in the April election to oppose President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Panel Chairman Thabo Mbeki says the panel's first hurdle will be a big one.
"There is an immediate objective in front of us, Sudan is going to have elections in April 2010, what we must do is to assist everybody involved in that to ensure they actually have democratic elections. Successful democratic elections," he said.
An international election observer organization this week criticized Sudan's government for doing too little to publicize the April election. In a statement, the U.S. based Carter Center said voters in some regions are apparently unaware of the election. With the deadline looming, the Carter Center warned that fewer than half the eligible voters had registered in some states.
Mr. Mbeki said one of the biggest challenges will be persuading the people of Darfur to participate, and to have faith in the electoral process.
"It is important that the people of Darfur are involved in those elections," he said "Otherwise you this sense of exclusion and marginalization if the whole country goes to election to choose a president, a national parliament and so on, and the people of Darfur are not part of that process," he said.
The national election was envisioned as part of a 2005 comprehensive peace agreement that ended more than two decades of war between northern and southern Sudan. That vote is to be followed by a referendum in January, 2011, giving southerners a chance to decide whether to remain part of Sudan or secede.
Indications are the south will vote for independence, a prospect many fear could lead to a resumption of war.
But diplomats attending Wednesday's meeting expressed concern that a failed April election would ruin any chance of a peaceful referendum.
Panel Chairman Mbeki avoided questions about how he might go about promoting reconciliation in a country ravaged by wars for decades. Speaking to a roomful of mediators, experts and peacekeeping officials, he appealed for fresh ideas.
Asked afterward how he saw his role in the process, the former South African leader quipped, 'the task for the panel is to make sure things happen'.