By the time Waad was 15, she had already been tortured for daring to openly discuss Sudan’s future. Her parents, both activists, had been “disappeared” after handing out leaflets in the eastern city of Kassala. After that, she says, authorities came for her.
“We wanted to make change for the future,” said Waad, who eventually escaped to Britain as a stowaway on a container ship. “We said you don’t have to be quiet any more. It was a threat for the government. They do anything to make [people] scared. I was beaten up. I was sexually assaulted, they threatened to kill me.”
Waad’s is a familiar story for those who dared to hope for free and fair politics in Sudan when, just over a year ago, the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, agreed to a national dialogue process, bringing together opposition parties and rebel forces with the government to resolve issues at the heart of Sudan’s various conflicts. But after the agreement, Khartoum jailed opposition party representatives, expanded the role of the infamous national intelligence service and eventually derailed even a pre-dialogue process.
This week’s national elections have been marred by low turnout, protests and violence in refugee camps and allegations of widespread voter intimidation. In one middle-class district of Khartoum, only 3 per cent of registered voters bothered to turn up.
Bashir, Sudan’s ruler for more than a quarter of a century, will win. That is almost certain. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Darfur and the border states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile are unable to participate in what has been described as “one criminal’s election”. Bashir is wanted on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide over his campaign in Darfur by the International Criminal Court. Elections have not been held in parts of Darfur and in South Kordofan. Opposition groups have boycotted the election, which has been extended for another day across Sudan.
Now a student of 24, Waad said she has little hope that the elections will effect change. “Peaceful demonstrators are killed and kidnapped. We need the world to see what’s going on.”
On Monday, the day voting started, a Khartoum newspaper congratulated the former finance minister and leading figure of the ruling NCP, Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasoul, on winning the parliamentary seat of his home town, Rihed al-Birdi, in South Darfur. He was unopposed.
“Bashir faces over 10 contenders, but it is a challenge for a regular voter to name even one,” Magdi el-Gizouli, an academic and fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, said. “The president campaigned vigorously, not so much to win votes, as to project authority primarily within his own party, a mutable coalition of military officers, security men, business barons, professional politicians of an Islamist mold and many who are ready to serve power whatever its character.”
Witnesses claim that Bashir cast his vote this week in an electoral centre in a central Khartoum school. Around him was a small queue of “voters”. They were, in fact, candidates for various parliamentary positions, said Mr el-Gizouli. “Voters are hard to come by in today’s Sudan,” he added.
The African Union (AU) is reported to have sent observers to monitor the vote, a move criticised as accepting its legitimacy. It is due to announce the findings from its preliminary assessment of the election this week.
In London, the Foreign Office was scathing in its assessment of the vote. “The conflicts in Sudan continue, human rights abuses are widespread, and political and press freedoms are severely curtailed,” said a spokesman. “It is very clear that the upcoming elections cannot produce a credible result. We chose not to support these elections.”
“Bashir is set to re-legitimise his leadership with elections that are false... He will go on to pursue his narrow version of Islam and genocidal policies for a further five years,” said Olivia Warham, director of human rights campaign group Waging Peace.
Yassir, 39, grew up in the capital of west Darfur, el-Geniena, where he lived – with a break for four years at university in Khartoum – until 2012. “I left because I was working in political activities there,” Yassir, a member of the Umma Party – which has boycotted the election – told The Independent. “I had threats and was also detained. They threatened me with death. They prevent you from sleeping, they can beat you. You have to write a statement that you will not be involved in any activities; you are watched all the time. In the villages and towns the military outnumber the civilians. The elections are not free. The people are not free. Most of the people, especially in Darfur, have not voted.”
In north Darfur, voting has been postponed. In south Darfur, some 20 people were arrested after security forces went door to door, ordering residents to vote. “The head of the security apparatus threatened those who refused to vote,” one resident of Kutum told Radio Dabanga.
Asia Lessan, 35, left Darfur in 2008 and is now part of the activist group Darfur Together. She is in regular contact with women living in refugee camps in eastern Darfur. She said: “They are dying of hunger. Twice a week, there’s a woman dying in the camps while she’s giving birth.” She added: “The women in the camps won’t go to vote. No woman went out of the camps on the day of the election. They said whoever wants to come to force us to vote, let them come inside the camp. We will fight. It’s the bravest situation ever from those women in the camps… They don’t want to vote because if you go to vote, they will force you to vote for Bashir. He’s the man who put them in this situation.”
Monim Eljak, 42, is a chairman of the Commission for the Protection of Civilians in the conflict zones of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. “This election is just an extension – they’re hoping to gain new legitimacy and to unify the regime. For Sudanese people, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a continuation of the atrocities and the corruption by the regime.”
Additional reporting by Samuel Osborne
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