Global Policy Forum

Tensions Soar in Sudan with Violent Clashes and Political Arrests


By Mark Tran

December 7, 2009


Police have arrested senior politicians from southern Sudan during a violent demonstration in Khartoum amid fears that the country is on the brink of tearing itself apart after years of uneasy peace.

Yasir Arman, a senior member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), scuffled with officers outside parliament before being taken to a police station, where other demonstrators gathered, Reuters reported.

The SPLM released a statement saying police also arrested its secretary general, Pagan Amum, and Sudan's state minister for the interior, Abbas Juma, a party member. Meanwhile police used teargas and batons to break up a demonstration by thousands of Sudanese protesters unhappy with the government's handling of next year's national election.

"The situation is brutal. More than 100 SPLM members have been arrested and many more other protesters have been detained," said Keji Roman, a SPLM spokeswoman.

April's elections are crucial element to the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), which ended more than two decades of war between the north and the south that claimed 2 million lives and devastated the country's oil-rich south.

The presidential and parliamentary elections - Sudan's first multi-party polls in 24 years - are expected to pave the way for a referendum in 2011 in which the south will choose whether to become independent, as stipulated under the 2005 deal. But political tension has been building ahead of the elections. The SPLM, the junior partner in the national coalition government formed after the CPA, has boycotted parliament, demanding changes to laws that restrict political activities.

Another point of contention is the registration of expatriates, with the south pushing for flexible arrangements that would allow as many people as possible to register. The north favours more restrictive procedures as it fears that Sudanese living abroad will favour the SPLM.

Outside observers believe the elections and the referendum in particular could lead to renewed conflict and the potential for a humanitarian disaster.

The US-based Human Rights Watch says Sudan lacks the conditions for free and fair elections. Armed conflict in Darfur continues, while the National Congress party-led government in Khartoum has stepped up repressive tactics throughout the northern states with arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as censorship and harassment of activists and journalists.

Divisions within the SPLM add to the sense of volatility in southern Sudan where escalating ethnic violence has left 1,200 dead this year. The security problems in the south could interrupt the election process there. Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting between armed civilian groups, clashes between the government-led armed forces and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army, as well as attacks by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

"Tensions that flared between north and south Sudan in the wake of these arrests are a warning sign that the international community cannot afford to ignore," said Dr James Smith, the chief executive of the Aegis trust, a British group that campaigns against crimes against humanity.

"Even if the status quo can be maintained for the moment, in the absence of strong, sustained and intelligent international diplomacy, Sudan could well return to all-out war by the time the referendum is due on southern independence."


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