Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Sudanese capitol is seething with anticipation for the upcoming elections that will determine its future. In the wake of the surprises last week that saw the withdrawal of five presidential candidates, the near future may witness more surprises as the date of the most dangerous and important elections in the country’s history approaches.
In his first in-depth interview since the announcement of his withdrawal from the presidential elections, Yasser Araman, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s [SPLM] candidate, expressed his fears to Asharq Al-Awsat about the potential acts of violence due to the wide rigging activities that are taking place in full swing.
The Following is the full text of the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn your candidacy from the presidential elections. What are the reasons?
[Araman] For some time now, we have been sending many memos to the electoral commission drawing its attention to many violations and breaches without getting a definitive reply. At the same time, the rigging is proceeding in full swing. We have agreed with the other presidential candidates to wait for 72 hours to make a final decision on the electoral process. Each candidate will go back to his party and base in order to make the suitable decision. A few days ago, the SPLM Political Bureau met in Juba and concluded that the rigging is wide-spread and that the elections are a mere attempt to elect one person with the blessing of the others through this rigging. We concluded that the elections are not part of the democratic process but to protect Al-Bashir from the International Criminal Court that is demanding his arrest. He is trying to gain legitimacy without a democratic process. He is a person that has spent 20 years in power but wants to remain in power for 25 years. He has become a burden on the National Congress Party and on Sudan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are talking about a deal with the National Congress Party, particularly since they had tried to make you withdraw in the past but the SPLM did not agree.
[Araman] There is no deal with the National Congress Party; it has nothing to offer us. We support liberties and democracy. We support democratic change but the National Congress is a totalitarian party. It does not want to learn anything new.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the reason behind the decision to withdraw from Darfur?
[Araman] Darfur is suffering from a state of emergency. Those that are voting there are not the people of Darfur but the security organs. During our election tour, the people of Darfur told us that their demand is peace, not elections. Moreover, the presidential elections without the people of Darfur would be deficient. That is why we decided to boycott the elections on all levels in Darfur and to boycott the presidential elections. In northern Sudan, we are coordinating with the forces of national consensus; we shall make a decision on the elections in the north after consultation with the forces there.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you hinting that other decisions may be made in the north, like a boycott for instance?
[Araman] Yes, if the forces of national consensus make such decisions, we will support them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could it reach the level of a total boycott?
[Araman] Yes, if these forces decide to boycott. We are now consulting with them and will agree with them if they decide on a comprehensive boycott after consulting the SPLM leadership.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When do you expect a decision to be made on this subject?
[Araman] The picture will be clear within 48 hours.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your observations on the electoral process so far?
[Araman] There have been violations from the start regarding the census, the voter registration process, and so on. We believe that wide-spread rigging activities are taking place in full swing. They are obvious to everyone. For instance, the population of the small town of Haya (in the east) suddenly became larger than the population of Port Sudan (on the Red Sea). The people of the south, who have formed one-third of Sudan’s population, suddenly became one-fifth in the last census. No one in his right mind believes this. These are very important issues and are tied to other arrangements, such as the distribution of the geographic districts. They are also important because they are related to making changes on the constitution and on a comprehensive peace agreement. Mistakes have also been noted in the voter registration process, particularly in the registration of the regular armed forces. Violations are now being committed every day. The regime is in control of the media outlets and using them to issue political instructions to the electoral commission. What is even more dangerous is that the ballot cards that should have been printed in Britain, South Africa, and Slovenia are now being printed in the “State Mint” printer. This means that “we have given the lamb to the wolf to protect”. It is also now difficult for the United Nations to transport the ballot boxes to the sorting center after the authorities refused to give visas to the pilots of 13 planes that were to perform this task. What is even more amazing is that Vice President Ali Othman Taha and Abel Alier, the chairman of the electoral commission, have proposed to Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, to have the armed forces transport the ballot boxes in the south to the sorting centers in the north. They thus do not need a permit to have the armed forces perform this task in the north in lieu of the United Nations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The election will be held after a few days. Do you think this process will succeed and proceed ahead?
[Araman] The elections are facing extremely complex technical and political difficulties. The most prominent of these difficulties is that Darfur is now under emergency law that makes it easy to rig the elections. Moreover, the electoral process will be held in an extremely tense climate and hot issues. It is difficult for any state, particularly an African state, to succeed in such a climate. If it does succeed in just one election, it deserves to be congratulated. Among the hot issues are Darfur, the issue of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the issue of the self-determination referendum. The most important point is that the National Congress Party that has been in power for 20 years wants to imitate the Mauritanian general who staged a coup and granted himself legitimacy through elections. After 20 years, they want to do what he did although they are to blame for a jihadist war in the south, another war in Darfur, and a third war in the east. This is in addition to the issue of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and many other issues. The purpose of the elections should be to restore power to the people. The people should select whoever they think is suitable; they can do that peacefully and correctly. However, this is very much in doubt these days. What we need now is a comprehensive review to be conducted by the electoral commission that does not now enjoy the trust of the parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The SPLM is accused of exploiting the political forces for its own goals.
[Araman] We have no interest in exploiting the political forces. Our visions are identical regarding the strategic issues. Democratic change and fair and free elections are in our common interest. In political alliances, there are always interests and considerations at varying degrees. Alliances always need a minimum level of agreement and decisions are not made hastily. Perhaps some people have these impressions but they are not correct impressions. It was we that concluded the Juba conference for the opposition forces and emerged with the current coalition. We are the only ruling party that worked with the opposition. We made major sacrifices and we took positions that are close to those of the opposition although we were in power. We are the partners of the National Congress Party in a small arena, namely, the authority, and the partners of the opposition in wider arena of the homeland. The issues being raised these days are major issues that require national consensus.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There was coordination with the coalition forces in Juba to run in the elections with candidates that have been agreed upon. Can this happen now?
[Araman] There is talk about coordination on level of the provincial governors and on the presidential candidates. We have not yet reached an actual agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the progress of the electoral campaign in view of the fact that it is the first campaign to be waged by the SPLM since its establishment in 1983 as a military movement?
[Araman] It is a unique and historic campaign. As a movement, we were established in southern Sudan and now we are competing from Halfa in the extreme north to Nimuli in the extreme south and from Kasla to the east to Al-Junaynah to the west. We wrote our history and we now have the most candidates on all the levels. We are the only party with four women candidates to the post of governor in four provinces. My candidacy to the presidency marked a defeat to the public impression that the SPLM is a Christian southern movement since I am a Muslim and from the north. I am the only candidate that was endorsed by 56,000 people, followed by Al-Bashir with 31,000 votes while taking his position into consideration. Through our public work on the Sudanese streets these days, we had the opportunity to learn about the opinion of the people and we concluded that the [National] Congress Party does not exist. It is a tyrannical party that exploits the organs of the state in its favor, contrary to the SPLM that enjoys broad popular support. This demonstrates our depth within Sudan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You launched your campaign from the home of Sudanese struggler Ali Abdul-Latif. What message were you trying to convey?
[Araman] Southerners and northerners participated in Ali Abdul-Latif’s movement against colonialism in 1924 to expel the colonialists. We tied our vessels and sails to the masts of history in order to proceed from a just and voluntary unity between the north and the south. We want a nation that is run from a new center of authority in Khartoum because the old and the current centers are in tatters and patronizing. They have used up their purpose. We should reach a new political social contract. Khartoum should be like a share-holding company owned by all the provinces and with a fresh outlook. Khartoum as a capital and a center has exported poverty and wars to the provinces. The wars in the south and in Darfur should be the last wars in Sudan and we should open a fresh page. We want Khartoum to be a capital that reflects our diversity and that can accommodate everyone. At present, Khartoum is like a centrifugal force and if this continues Sudan will be torn to pieces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that you have messages for women and for the urban poor. What are these messages?
[Araman] In our electoral campaign, we offered messages to women about merging them in the state organs. We will change the laws and we will sign new laws in the interest of women. The Sudanese countryside is now in ruins with no agriculture and no grazing leading to immigration to the city. The urban poor do not find factories or places for production in which to work. The oil revenues are wasted in a consumer society and in corruption. We want to use the oil to revive production in the countryside and to establish factories in the cities for their poor. We want to transfer the city to the countryside rather than the countryside to the city. We want to give the urban poor a priority in services, housing, and potable water. We want to make the task of women easier so they can devote a longer time to production instead of devoting all their time to cooking and carrying drinking water on their shoulders. In our agenda, we also want to give the military and civilians that were arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs their material and moral rights. We should change from a state that collects taxes to a welfare state. We also met with the young and discussed their problems – unemployment, drugs, and AIDS. We talked about their reconciliation with the other sectors of society, the Muslim, Christian, Arab, and African sectors. The young are disenfranchised and for the past 20 years they have known only one president while their peers in America and Europe have known four prime ministers or four presidents in the same period. One of our messages also is that we wish to make radical changes on our foreign policy. We want to base our foreign policy on new yardsticks so that reconciliation among our own people should take precedence over reconciliation with others. We should abide by good neighborliness and international charters and we should give care about the issues of the refugees and expatriates. We should also show interest in history. We visited the Al-Bajrawiyah region that is famous for its pyramids so that the Sudanese would reconcile with their own history. Thus, the election campaign of the SPLM reflected the real issues of the Sudanese people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have made field visits to Darfur. Do you think elections can be held there?
[Araman] Darfur is now in a state of emergency and it would be difficult to hold elections under such conditions. It would be very easy to rig the elections in light of the emergency law. Wide-scale migrations are taking place in Jabal Murrah and silence about what is happening there. They do not want to talk about it to the outside world but we do.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you faced any harassment?
[Araman] We have not faced acts of harassment but some members of groups that cooperate with us, like the “Qarifnah” [as transliterated, meaning “We Are Fed Up”] movement, have been subjected to arrests and torture. Tanks were used to prevent the displaced in Al-Fashir from coming to us. They also barred vehicles that were transporting the displaced in Kalima camp from attending our panels. In other regions, like Al-Malihah, they beat thousands that had come to greet us carrying photos. They were beaten up and some were put under arrest. Others were also arrested in Al-Fashir, Niyala, and Al-Duayn.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Two campaigns are being waged on the Sudanese street – one by the National Congress Party and the second by the SPLM – while the others are absent. You are also both accused of using state funds for advertising purposes.
[Araman] There is no comparison between us and the National Congress Party. Al-Bashir’s party is spending on its electoral campaign like one that is not afraid of going bankrupt. It is exploiting the state organs and using public events to promote its campaign. It also controls the official media outlets and uses repressive security organs. The SPLM, however, is distant from all this. It is true that we have a presence on the street and in the media but without any assistance from the state organs and we did not use the resources of the state in our favor, as the National Congress Party is doing. It has been nominating a person in power for the past 21 years and who wishes to remain in power for more years until he completes a quarter century in power. It is as if the National Congress Party has no other men or women except for him that are worthy of this position. It is as if this position belongs permanently to him.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any figures on how much your electoral campaign has cost?
[Araman] I have figures but I do not wish to divulge them now. I do not wish to give information to the competition but I will eventually reveal them. Of course, they are below the ceiling set by the electoral commission. The commission should monitor the expenditure of the National Congress Party’s candidate because he has definitely exceeded the ceiling. In one of his speeches, he said that there will be no ceiling to spending and we say there is no ceiling to spending and rigging until Al-Bashir wins.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the National Congress Party has a base in the south that is troubling you?
[Araman] Definitely not for the southerners will not vote for a man that waged war on them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are more than 300 candidates from the SPLM that are running as independents. Will this affect the chances of your movement?
[Araman] Yes, it will but the principal and stronger current supports the SPLM.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will Lam Akol lower Salva Kiir’s chances at winning?
[Araman] Lam Akol does not have a chance in the south; he is not respected by the southerners who know his history. In the past 20 years, he has belonged to nine parties. He is apolitical nomad and the southerners do not trust him. How can they trust him when “this is the scar left by his pickaxe” (a reference to an Arab proverb that describes treachery)?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there fears that violence may erupt? Are there fears of scenarios similar to the Iranian or Kenyan scenarios?
[Araman] We are coming close to such scenarios because one of their causes, that is fraud, is wide-spread and in full swing. Moreover, the National Congress Party cannot win in a fair election.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about clashes in the south? Could these impact the elections?
[Araman] There are various causes for the clashes that are related to social and economic problems as well as to issues related to the authorities. What is certain, however, is that the National Congress Party is involved in its relations with the militias and in inciting the tribes in an attempt to destabilize the country. This is serious and troublesome. We tried in the past few years to control the situation despite the obstacles, the lack of institutions, and the weakness of the infrastructure in the south due to the civil war that raged for decades. This dilemma can be resolved through short-term and long-term reform policies and treatment of the economic and social problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are accusing the SPLM and saying that its main concern is the referendum and that it does not care about the elections.
[Araman] The correct approach is to give priority to the referendum that will decide whether Sudan will be one state or two and the elections will answer the question on who will rule Sudan. The option was between amputating one organ of the body of Sudan and residing in this or that town. Practically, the referendum should have been held before the elections.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the fate of the south? Is secession more likely?
[Araman] The south will secede if Al-Bashir remains in power and if Khartoum remains the capital of war, poverty, and arrogance. However, if change takes place through policies that say “no to wars” and if Khartoum becomes a capital that accommodates everyone, unity will be achieved because it will be an attracting unity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are saying that you are punishing the Sudanese by using the slogan of attracting unity.
[Araman] We are not punishing the Sudanese; the Sudanese are fed up with wars, injustice, and unfairness. They do not want to be second class citizens in their own homeland. If that is impossible, they want a homeland where they can live as first class citizens. The ball is now in the north’s court.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean that the ball is in the court of the National Congress Party?
[Araman] The National Congress is ruling the north and the southerners wish to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The National Congress wants to subjugate the southerners by force and the policies of jihad. The south gave six years that should have been exploited to build an attracting unity. However, the north used these years to dismantle the south and the SPLM. That is why the southerners are being pushed to the option of secession.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But why should the Sudanese pay the price for mistakes made by a party that does not have a presence on the street, as you say?
[Araman] The guilt of the Sudanese is that the southerners do not want to bear the negative aspects of the current policies alone. They do not want to be the cause for a fresh war. If the southerners come to the polling boxes and discover that change has not taken place they will have no choice but to choose an alternative homeland. They will not choice but to select to rule themselves instead of going through wars that have cost them four million citizens.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What has the SPLM done for the attracting unity?
[Araman] It has sought for change in Khartoum and has consistently engaged in political battles. The gains that we have made were only made following a lot of give and take with the National Congress Party. They are saying that they prefer to remain in power more than achieving unity. They are saying that they can sacrifice the unity of Sudan in order to remain in power and so that a small and corrupt handful in the party that does not have a political program would continue to remain in power. It even divided the Islamic movement into factions. These days, the National Congress is talking about who is from the Jali tribe (President Al-Bashir’s tribe) and who is from the Shayqi tribe (Vice President Ali Othman Taha’s tribe).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If secession takes place, what would be your position as a northerner?
[Araman] The more important point is what would be the position of Sudan if the south secedes. The threat to secede will threaten the regions of the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, and Darfur because secession means failure to absorb diversity, pluralism, and contemporary history. Your question should be addressed to those that are greater and more important than I. It should be addressed to the people and the land. It should be addressed to Sudan itself. My life can end any place and at any time but under all circumstances, I will continue to struggle for the unification of Sudan once again if secession takes place. The Second World War separated nations that did not expect that but they later united. The south will not be the south of Brazil if it chooses to secede! I will devote all my efforts to keep Sudan united prior to the referendum.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect a secure state in the south if secession takes place?
[Araman] There will be no secure state either in the north or in the south unless there is a wise and rational force that rules the two sides, a force that works to unite not to divide.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the SPLM have a clear vision for a solution?
[Araman] There is a clear vision and in our opinion, the problem is solvable. We believe that the issue is the outcome of political, economic, and cultural marginalization. It is not a military or a security issue as the National Congress maintains. We believe that the land of Darfur should belong to its people and we believe that the farms should be restored to them. As for the tribes that came from outside and from across the border, they have two options only: Either they stay and live as guests or they leave.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the criminal trials in Darfur?
[Araman] We should make a strong link between justice, peace, and reconciliation. No one should escape punishment regarding any crime he may have committed. We must make peace and reconcile with the people of Darfur.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are several proposals to try the defendants. Which ones do you support?
[Araman] We believe that the proposed mixed courts (Sudanese and foreign judges) would be a good opportunity to solve the issue but the National Congress is avoiding it. We do not want anyone to escape punishment. We will work in accordance with what the Sudanese agree upon in this regard and with what is in harmony with their interests.