Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 24 March 2010

Sudan’s Elections: Teaching Elephants to fly


By John A. Akec

March 23, 2010 — Most recently, I shared a table with a Sudanese diplomat in a social function in Juba. The EU-based diplomat was on special leave to enable him to join Salva Kiir’s election campaign team. Learning that, all the eyes on the table turned on him. Quizzed as to what he thought about the impending elections, the diplomat was brutally honest: "It is the first time in history that a guerrilla movement is asked to practice democracy in so short a time", he said. I was quick to respond: "what about ANC in South Africa? Was it not a guerrilla movement like SPLM and yet did not have problem contesting elections and practicing democracy?" I asked.

The diplomat calmly explained that considering the baseline or the legacy SPLM is building on, especially where South Sudan was five years ago, to be asked to practice true democracy now is quite a tall order. Many heads on the table nodded in a reserved approval. I liked his honesty. And in a way, this election is really about teaching old elephants to fly. I will explain my sweeping statement.

For starter, the ruling parties themselves, Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM), and National Congress (NCP) are not inherently democratic by their very history. There is one big difference, though: SPLM has claimed all along that its main aim is to transform Sudan into a secular democratic state. Yet as a movement, it never practiced democracy. While fighting for democracy, the SPLM leaders, as read through their actions and occasional utterances, never believed democracy is an effective tool of decision-making when waging a liberation war. Alternative views or visions were never tolerated, let alone any form of criticism no how matter mild or constructive it may be. And this was one of the reasons for the many splits the movement suffered and still is stalked by it to this day. Yet, it does not stop SPLM supporters and Sudanese people from holding SPLM to ransom for its long advocated slogans.

NCP, too, has been fighting for an Islamic theocracy with no mention of democracy. And for two decades, NCP has thrived on repressive dictatorship. To have their way, they built torturing houses that have become popularised in Sudan’s political vocabulary as "Ghost Houses". This is the baseline for the two ruling parties. None has a track record of democracy.

Outside the corridors of power, are some of Sudan political parties with a long history of contesting elections and practicing democracy at certain times since independence. As all know, Sudan has seen power changing hands many times between democratically elected governments and despotic military juntas, the NCP regime being the most repressive and yet most versatile dictatorship to rule in modern history of Sudan. Manned by a bunch of educated elites, they bend and twist without breaking in order to survive. Overall, Sudan has been under dictatorship more than it has been ruled by a democracy.

Democracy, therefore, if I may say, was a kind of heaven we longed for, yet never experienced in real life. Although war and oppression has pushed millions of Sudanese to seek refuge in democracies of Europe, North America, and Australia. This author spent nearly two decades in Britain and had only returned to Sudan two years ago, having experienced real democracy for 17 years in the UK. And speaking from this experience, democracy as such is not an unattainable utopia as we would like sometimes to think. It is not defect free either, but it is by far the most natural and humane alternative to despotism that Sudan and most of Middle East are accustomed to. The coming elections may attest to that.

Back to the point of this article, here we are asking giant elephants that never flied nor danced in their entire lives to do just that. We have two powerful ruling parties (SPLM and NCP) controlling both military and financial resources, and state machinery of the country; and we are asking them to contest democratic elections while creating a levelled playing field for all and protecting the rights of all.

European Union is sending 130 election monitors (56 of them already in the country), Carter Centre has already deployed 60 monitors, while the League of Arab States is planning to deploy 60 of its own monitors. Surrounded by ubiquitous means of transmitting information from mobile phone to internet, the pressure for all to ensure a "fair and free elections" has never been high.

Both the SPLM and NCP have assured the Sudanese that they are working hard towards fair and free elections. Like rats playing a game with cats, it could go ugly anytime when a rat gets on cat’s sensitive nerve. That is exactly what happened when a group of youth formed NGO organisation in Khartoum calling themselves "Girivina", meaning "fed up", began to distribute leaflets calling for voting out of NCP regime and organising public rallies. Many of their members were arrested and tortured on charge of causing public disorder. No one believes the government’s accusation. It is all about election heat getting to them, and stretching their patience beyond breaking point. And so the smiley Omer Al Bashir could in no time turned into an angry boar, causing all the rabbits in the election valley to disappear into holes, shaking with terror.

This is also true of SPLM in South Sudan. Having shown good faith by according the only other candidates for presidency of South Sudan, Dr. Lam Akol, the protection of the state security forces, and having issued guidelines on code of good practice, there are incidents that showed the party’s intolerance to ideal of democracy such as competition and freedom of expression.

Lam Akol, the leader of SPLM Democratic Changed accused some of SPLA forces in Malakal of tearing down his party’s posters and called for more discipline in the SPLA once elected. This generated an angry reaction from the army spokesperson General Kuol Diem, who called for the presidential candidate to "shut up" and avoid talking about SPLA. That in turn sparked public controversy about the constitutionality of asking a presidential candidate to shut up.

Also, in Unity State last week, there were clashes in the stadium between supporters of incumbent governor, Taban Deng Gai, and his independent contender, Angelina Riek Teny. Presidential candidate and incumbent President of South Sudan was in town to launch his electoral campaign. Seeing the clashes, Kiir flew back to Juba without addressing the rally, the attendants of which were united in Kiir’s candidacy and that of Yasir Arman but disagreed on who should be elected as the next governor of Unity State.

In Western Equatoria state, there had been raids on the lodge of Joseph Bakosoro, the independent candidate for post of the governor. Cars were taken away by police and body guards arrested and later released. It was not clear who was behind this harassment but not too hard to form opinion as to who might be responsible for it. But within minutes of the incident, one of his supporters sent an urgent message to an internet discussion group, and quickly generated heated debate about the fairness and freedom of candidates for right to campaign without fear.

All in all, this election is putting Sudan’s "test tube" democracy on trial. We can see that the parties are trying their best to rise to the challenge. It is a matter of weeks to see whether or not Sudan elephants have been taught to dance and fly.

Dr John Akec is assistant professor at the University of Juba Sudan. To read more of his articles please click the following link to author’s personal blog: http://johnakecsouthsudan.blogspot.com/

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  • 24 March 2010 05:44, by Dinka Boy

    Dr John Akec ,

    Democracy does not just come through smoothly in almost all the nations that practice it right now. It came when the country felt so many irrelevant issues. I can not blamed GOSS by now because they just get out from reppression of North control for decades.

    Certainly,you can check USA, in 1828, president Andrew Jackson took the ill compaign for ethnic cleansing of Cherokee in the Country. Second, the huge segregation in the nation etc. In fact, USA is the most democracy nation in the whole whole despite the fact that they have experienced those tragic ruling in their respective time. Moreover, You very well know what had happened to Nelson Mandela of South Africa ,but now the country is equal.

    Also, you know what happened to Germany, and Australia when they very much assimilated the Aboriginals etc.

    My point is that, we South Sudan let alone the North who have been in power for decades never smell leadership ever since. I thought we are doing great as you narrated;and indeed, we are going to be there to the smoother democracy stages.

    Please we south Sudanese are very patience,no doubt about that but why not we take more than five years to blame Goss Sudan of being adictatorship government

    We will go there because i knew from the slight governing that the GOss did within these short time(5years). Yes everybody want democracy,but it always take time to be implemented due to the hardship of democracy procedures and formation of goverments.

    repondre message

    • 24 March 2010 06:49, by Lokorai


      You aren’t serious! This is too much of you making mockery of people’s party day in day out.

      Please go slow, your latest onslaught against the SPLM will not help your favorite candidate to win election- the SPLM will win!

      Your self exile then in South Africa could have sharpened you to write constructively, but unfortunately you aren’t.

      You Dinka are confusing us!


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      • 24 March 2010 10:36, by sagadick

        Dear John A. Akec

        I thank you for your sincere piece of writing. However, our government/ the SPLM led government is like a child who have just been born. It needs to learn how to walk, speak and know more about the nature itself.

        Of course depending on a child. He or she can easily learn to walk, speak or talk etc...
        In the case of our SPLM, you know most of our leaders left the repressing government in the early 1980s and joined the fighting which just lasted in 2005. Five years aren’t enough to make magic things.

        Nevertheless, like a child, they need to learn about many things including democracy, human rights and so forth . This means, what we all opt for "Democracy" will take time to come.

        I am not saying that things are excellent right now in our country. You know, sometimes, there are setbacks in every process but let’s have patient and support the party that is doing its best to transform the whole Sudan into a real democracy. By the way, take or follow the diplomat’s logic.

        Best regards

        repondre message

    • 24 March 2010 16:25, by Time1

      Dinika Boy

      I totally agree with you that development and transformation is a gradual process and we are getting there, step by step, it might be slow due to other circumstances but it is for sure.

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  • 24 March 2010 10:52, by Sudan virus

    John Akec , you are creating insecurity on your master Lam. Its totally indiscipline to insult the army, what happened in Malakal against the army deserved severe punishment i tell you.

    Do not misuse the freedom given you to insult the army. Doing so, i guest you just want intentionally spark trouble between your party and the SPLM.

    The SPLM has the right to any time take action against such reckless speeches given the situation in the Sudan election description as Hiltler election by Moreno Acombo the ICC proscuter.

    Every citizen including you affiliates of NCP in the south are responsible for the provision of fair and free election,not the SPLM. And you are doing the contrary now.

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    • 27 March 2010 02:58, by musa daud

      Sudan virus,

      For your information, the army is not a bible in any democratic state.

      SPLA in fact is just a buch of barbaric, ill-deciplined, and bad trained militia. they have no slight right to arrest any body or interfere in any political affairs. Their sole role is to defend the land against external interuders.

      This is just for your poor understanding.

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  • 24 March 2010 16:22, by James Okuk Solomon

    To comment to this article in prarable is to say: it is not the nature of elephant to fly, and thus it is a waste of time to teach it how to fly. Most of the leaders at the top leadership hierarchy of SPLM today have never passed through school of democracy and have no experience how the game is supposed to be played. That is why the panic has been the ruler of their hearts. Even though they were courageous and gallant on the gun and war, alas, the process of democratic transformation has proven them cowards of the people’s power.

    The fellows who tries to woodwink the public that SPLM is still a child and thus its dictatorship must be tolerated till further notice, are playing with the dictates of human civilization. Toleration when tribes are killing each others within and without and when corruption spree is legitimized, is so devastating to be tolerated even by an inch.

    SPLM bad leadership must go if genuine change has to come in the South for a better future. Five years is enough to evaluate and judge a bad leader from the good one. The South can do better wihtout necessarily being led by the current incompetent president who don’t want to quit as he has failed the people.

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    • 25 March 2010 00:57, by R. TOOL

      Mr. James Okuk Solomon,

      I am going to hate myself for saying this .... With all due respect sir, and with all education you claimed to have, you’re so stupid. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And in your first comment ... it’s not "woodwind" but "hoodwink" professor. You need to go back home and help your people. Using big words ....you are an ass.

      Many countries has paid for your education, food, leaving and good health so someday you will go back to help those who stayed behind. Hope this gets into your thick skull.

      If anyone is a coward in the south ..... it’s you James, Ramba, and Lam Akol. Where were you when the Arabs were slaughtering your people in the south since 1956 and they continue kill your people to date.

      Please note, this is not personal again you and company, but need to point out the facts and all your lies. You people are miss inform in this struggle. People of the south have no tolerances for people who behave so stupid. The people around the world are getting what is call "fatigue factor", in another word they are getting tired of you people.

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  • 24 March 2010 16:23, by Time1

    As the first ever democratic and inclusive elections in the history of Sudan since independence, this elections deserve credit and support, Sudanese in general will learn alot of lessons from this election wether it is be successful or less successful, it is the right thing to have a democratic election and it is a good start for Sudan in general, am sure things will improve with every elections carried out, the elections after this will be much better and the one after will be even better, learning and development is a gradual process, do not expect instant and immediate success of 100% but lets work for a near success then improve in the one a fter that, south sudan especially will learn alot fromt his elections, now the population know that they have the rights to elect who they want and the politicians know that they will only be elected to high office is they serve the people ans how their commitment to good governance, this alone is a big step toward a democratic society, lets say in 5 years time the people and politicians will all be even more aware of democratic requirements, officials will no longer be hand picked or appointed to top office but they will be choosen by the people based on their merits, this will bring good governance on the side of politicians because they want to be elected again and the people will also exercise their rights, i will say it is a good begining.

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    • 24 March 2010 21:48, by marie

      We have to practice what we preach. The SPLA/SPLM staged the liberation movementent because, they need change. The manifesto of the movement which liberty, democracy and freedom of expression, was what attracted those hero who put thier lives in line. To deviate from those principles is a conspiracy against the wish of the people and it means we have lost the 2 million souls in vain.

      ANC in South Africa did not have a hidden agenda. They were fighting for a genuine change in the country, that is why, when Nelson Mandela took over power in the democratic election, he was able to exercise a democracy in its real meaning.

      When you see all the comments on this web site on the various articles being published, any article that is critical of SPLM or GOSS is always meet with aggression. This is simply because people do not understand what a democracy is or a freedom of speech. Even USA has two parties, the non ruling party check the action of the ruling party.

      As humans we are not perfect, but there has to be a monitoring system that check our actions. That is why we have law institutions, different commissions, the assembly and you name them. Otherwise, let us scrap all those institutions and impose whatever the goverment deems is right for the people.

      We should draw a line between criticism and hatred. The two are different. When a brother critizes you, it does not mean he hates you, but instead he is trying to correct you so that next time you perform better. But this is not the case in Africa and in Sudan in particular. That is why we see rampant wars because people mix up the two.

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      • 26 March 2010 01:38, by Time1

        Both north and south sudan will have to build on this exercise and allow it to progress, this is like the foundation of democracy in Sudan, am sure after this elections the way poolitics is done in Sudan will not be the same again because the people will be more engage in the decision making and in picking candidates they see as fit, its the required begining of the democratic process.

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