US seal of approval is useless for Sudan


In the past year, the Obama administration's stated position on the Sudanese elections – set to begin this Sunday despite continued rumours of postponement and opposition boycotts – has radically shifted, from a principled stance (at least on paper) to a pragmatic and arguably anti-democratic view of the country's first multi-party polls in 24 years.

Last June, President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, made a comment that in retrospect exposed the overriding US priority for the elections (an expensive process to which the US has ) when : "What we're trying to do right now, is to get the folks together, the team together … so that we can get the national elections done."

Some members of the Obama administration – secretary of state and , the US representative to the United Nations – have highlighted the serious concerns of a wide array of Sudanese and international observers, analysts and activists about the conditions under which Sudan's polls will take place. At this late stage the list of state-sponsored violations, abuses and "irregularities" is well known and has been well documented by , the and an increasingly vocal in Khartoum, among others.

But for the US, which is a "guarantor" of the 2005 north-south peace agreement, the "get it done" approach has prevailed in the immediate runup to the polls, when late-breaking developments and elite deals have thrown into a heightened state of uncertainty and tension.

Early this week, Gration evoked sharp criticism from the opposition parties he has been taking pains to mediate between when he that the elections "would be as free and as fair as possible".

He might as well have stamped the US seal of approval on the process then and there, giving a symbolic pat on the back to President Bashir (who has been indicted for crimes) for his impending democratic victory.

The special envoy's intention was probably not to entirely sweep the rights abuses, political repression and high-level gerrymandering under the rug. But it is difficult to draw other conclusions in the face of evidence that the electoral process will be not remotely close to "free and fair".

Although special envoy Gration is the diplomat on the ground making day-to-day decisions, the US stance is consistent with a broader Obama administration policy on elections in countries where the US has stakes beyond promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms – that is to say, most countries. This policy, on clear display in last year's polls in Afghanistan, is in keeping with the approach of Obama's predecessor, George Bush.

The practice of accepting election results according to political convenience or broader (often economic or security) priorities is not novel. It has become an established precedent for the US and its partners in the western world, who seem willing to look the other way even when brave citizens in Iran are in the streets protesting or Sudanese students are organising against the National Elections Commission.

It is admittedly ironic that some non-Sudanese analysts (this author included) have taken to criticising the Sudanese ruling parties for their elite deal-making, based on their aims of retaining their respective power bases. These political parties are acting in their own interests with little regard for the Sudanese people who they claim to represent.

But what of the US government, whose in Sudan are peace, stability and freedom for the people?

Now is a moment when the Obama administration could be standing in solidarity with – or at least acknowledging – opposition movements and citizens who are rightfully fed up and fearful of the repressive policies and unjust rigging of elections that were intended to mark a transformational moment.

Instead, western diplomats are ultimately lending credence to a process that will disenfranchise the 18 million Sudanese citizens who were brave enough to register to vote in the first place (and their fellow citizens who did not or could not register). Sadly, the consequences of accepting these elections may not produce the result desired by the west – prevention of all-out conflict before next year's vote on southern independence.