A three-day referendum for Sudan’s Darfur region begins Monday despite concerns from the United States that it would not be credible and would also undermine the current peace process.
The vote will determine whether the region will keep its five states or reunite as one entity with a semi-autonomous administration.
An estimated three million people are still displaced due to the Darfur conflict.
In a statement, the US State Department said “insecurity in Darfur and inadequate registration of Darfuris residing in internally displaced persons (IDPS) camps prohibit sufficient participation”.
But Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Bilal said the referendum is being held at a time when Darfur is enjoying peace. He said Sudan is trying to fulfill its commitment under the Doha peace agreement, signed in 2011 between the Sudanese government and Liberation and Justice Movement rebels.
“Everybody knows this is a political commitment from my government towards the Doha peace agreement, and now everything is ready to secure this referendum for three days,” he said.
Some of the provisions of the Doha agreement included cessation of all hostilities and a permanent cease-fire; protection of human rights and freedom for civil society groups; and power sharing and administrative status of Darfur; and sharing of wealth.
The agreement said permanent administrative status for Darfur would be determined through a referendum.
US criticism of conditions in Darfur
In a statement issued over the weekend, the State Department said “lasting peace in Sudan will only be attained through a political process that addresses the underlying causes of the Darfur conflict, secures a lasting cessation of hostilities, and creates the space for meaningful participation of Darfuri groups and all Sudanese in an inclusive and genuine national dialogue”.
Bilal said Darfuris are enthusiastic about the referendum and President Omar al-Bashir’s government is committed to fulfilling the terms of the Doha agreement.
“In fact actually now, Darfur is in total peace. Darfur now is in a better condition more than any time before. We had anticipated to register about two and a half million people for the referendum, but instead three and a half million have been registered for the referendum. The people there are quite ready and enthusiastic to do this referendum,” Bilal said.
He said Sudan kept its promise and held a referendum which eventually led to South Sudan independence.
Bilal said Darfur rebels are always making unreasonable demands.
“They have always said that everything we do has to be stopped until they come to Darfur, and life cannot stop for them to come,” Bilal said.
The latest round of fighting in Darfur broke out on January 9 when an unidentified group attacked the village of Mouli and then fled.
In the last two weeks, the UN said about 19,000 displaced persons went to North Darfur and another 15,000 fled to Central Darfur, for a total of 34,000 displaced, many of them are women and children.
However, Bilal said many of the displaced persons have registered to vote. He said many of them met President Omar al-Bashir during his visit last week to the region. And he said Darfur is at peace "with not a single place occupied by the rebels."