Darfur: The Controversial Referendum


Civil wars remain one of the key manifestations of Sudan since its independence from Anglo-Egyptian condominium rule. Triggered by inter alia, oppressive rules, ethnic and ideological cleavages, competition over scarce resources and colonial legacies as well, major confrontations have been a long-term reality. The North-South war of 1955–1972, the North-South war of 1983–2005, the Darfur Conflict from 2003–present, the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions of the East, and rebellion of the Nuba Mountain region are some examples of the political violence and armed conflict Sudan has been involved in. The ongoing North-South confrontation has already been curbed by the 2011 separation of South Sudan through referendum. However, another devastating civil war, which began in 2003, still continues in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The Darfur armed conflict first broke out in April 2003. Political and economic marginalization of the region, along with other crucial factors like disputes over access to and control of natural resources, and “militarization and the proliferation of small arms” are considered as the key contributors for unresolved conflict in the region.

The conflict has triggered one of the worst humanitarian crises. Even the United Nations and United States has labeled the atrocity resulted by the war as “genocide”.  It was for this reason that the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged President Omar al-Bashir as a war criminal. According to different reports, an estimated “300, 000” people are believed to died as a direct result of the war; another, estimated  2.5 million people are forced to flee their home as a refugees, out of which around “1.4 million” are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Further, according to a U.N. report, 4.4 million people affected by the violence urgently require aid.

A number of peace processes have been initiated by the involvement of the international community in order to bring a lasting solution to the Darfur conflict. Three major agreements in 2004, 2006 and 2011 have been concluded between Government of Sudan and rebel group, all of which however, “either failed to impact events on the ground or have actually made matters worse in Darfur”. Out of these agreements, it was the June 2011 agreement named Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) that lays a base for the current infamous referendum carried out in the region. The Government of Sudan conducted a referendum for three days from April 11-13, 2016, though it is stipulated under DDPD that it was supposed to be held within one year after the signing.

Voting is already carried out in order to decide the administrative status of Darfur– either to continue consisting of the existing five separate states (North Darfur, South Darfur, East Darfur, West Darfur and Central Darfur), or to reunite as a single entity (as it was until 1994). Despite its controversial nature, the referendum takes place in 1,400 centres across the 62 localities, with 3.5 million registered voters across all states of Darfur. The final result of the vote is expected to be disclosed within ten days from the end of voting date. However, the media in Sudan disclosed the preliminary results of the referendum, which reports a “likelihood of the multiple-state option over the one region”.

It is reported that the referendum was strongly “rejected” by local displaced people, opposition leaders, and civil society activists. This was reflected in the international community, with the United States Department of State openly expressing its concern over the “credibility” of the referendum. The ongoing instability in this conflict-torn region, and “inadequate registration” of  IDPs for voting, were the key reasons forwarded by those who oppose the implementation of the referendum.

The two major opposition rebels groups–the Justice and Equality Movement, and the Sudan Liberation Army–stressed their rejection of the referendum and have called on their members to boycott. The rebels further accused the government of “rigging the vote in its favor to keep Darfur split into several states” and seriously warned that the referendum will only lead to more violence.  The government on its part put the referendum as a due fulfillment of the 2011 peace agreement. In account of this controversial referendum, observers have expressed their views that voting in the current situation will undermine the peace process. Furthermore, the likelihood of the government position against a unified Darfur may give rebel a platform to push for independence as the South Sudanese did.


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