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Can elections be held in Darfur?

Arranging an election in an area where many people live in refugee camps is far from straightforward, as the BBC's James Copnall discovered during a trip to Sudan's Darfur region.

Adam Mahmoud
Adam Mahmoud is among the refugees who have registered

Six years ago, as he fled the fighting in Darfur that killed one of his brothers, Adam Mahmoud felt utterly powerless.

Swept this way and that by a conflict that the UN estimates has killed 300,000, Mr Mahmoud ended up in a vast camp for internally displaced people, Abu Shouk.

Now in the relative safety, but miserable living conditions of the camp, Mr Mahmoud has found a way to make his voice heard.

"I am registered to vote in these elections," he says.

"I am free to choose, but I haven't decided yet who I will vote for."

However, if the election, Sudan's first real multi-party poll since 1986, offers Darfur's dispossessed the opportunity to influence their future, not everyone intends to take it.

The Bashir factor

Ahmed Atim, a large man with greying hair, introduces himself as the head of the traditional leaders in Abu Shouk camp.

He says turnout will be low at Abu Shouk and other refugee camps, where many of the 2.7 million displaced people in Darfur live.

Omar al-Bashir, in Darfur, 24/02
The closeness of Omar al-Bashir to the poll puts many Darfuris off voting

"Here in the camp not more than 5,000 or 6,000 have registered, out of 70,000," he says.

"The people are against the elections. They are coming from different places, the war has been really bad for them, and they do not like this government."

There is a perception in the camp that President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party is so closely linked to the polls that the elections themselves are not to be trusted.

"The people think the elections are not able to change everything," says Mohamed Sharif Beshir, who also lives in Abu Shouk.

"The NCP came to attack the people, then it came again to register them. That is why they refused to register."

Others complain that the registration period in the camp lasted only two days, rather than several weeks.

One teacher, in a basic camp school composed of 11 straw huts around a dusty central square, said he had not even been aware of the registration period.

"We don't know much about the elections," he says, asking for his name not to be used.

Darfur map

"I myself do not even have the right to return to my village in safety. How can I think about voting?"

Like many in Darfur, the displaced people in Abu Shouk are opposed to President Bashir and his party.

Some observers feel they have been deliberately marginalised during the registration process - a charge the NCP denies.

Civil war bitterness

But there are other areas where registration did not take place at all.

In South Darfur, for example, 20% of the land is estimated to be in the hands of rebels - principally the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Abdul-Wahid faction.

People in Darfur camps
Many Darfuris say they have more pressing concerns than the election

Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem), which has recently signed a ceasefire with the government, has called for the election to be postponed.

A senior official from the NCP, Ibrahim Ghandour, insists there will only be three areas where voting is impossible.

He also concedes his candidate will do less well in Darfur than elsewhere.

The region has traditionally supported Sadiq al-Mahdi and his Umma party. And many Darfuris are bitter about the events of the civil war.

However, many Darfuris also support the president. They at least can rejoice in the early lead their man has taken in the numbers of posters in the main towns.

Mr Bashir's cheery face smiles down on passers-by everywhere, in stark contrast to the dearth of posters bearing the faces of opposition candidates.

"I think the election is important, to let the people choose," says one man who is desperate to vote.

Another young man, in South Darfur's largest town Nyala, was less optimistic.

"People are talking about elections, but in Darfur we have many problems," he says.

"People have not registered, and the rebels are outside the elections. I don't think the conditions are right for proper elections."

Another, Ali Asil, says the important issue is not personalities but policies.

"It is not a matter of who should govern Sudan; it is a matter of how Sudan should be governed."

No protection?

Security will clearly be another issue in Darfur during elections.

The war has dropped in intensity, but quite apart from the rebels, armed groups and criminals make travelling around dangerous.

A hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission, Unamid, has nearly 19,000 men in uniform on the ground.

But because of limits to their peacekeeping mandate and insufficient numbers to patrol such a vast area, Darfuris should not count too much on Unamid for protection.

There are areas where the peacekeepers cannot travel, and even these heavily armed military specialists sometimes come off worse in gun battles with criminals intent on car-jackings.

"There is still time to do the right things by all," says Ibrahim Gambari, the head of Unamid.

He adds that although Unamid will help, as it did in the registration process, it is up to the Sudanese to make sure their elections are safe, free and fair.

All the same, the possibilities for armed men or overzealous officials influencing voters must be huge.



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