Episcopalians Ramp Up Advocacy Ahead of Sudan Elections

As Sudan heads towards its first democratic elections in over 20 years, members of the Episcopal Church are raising awareness of the issues confronting the African nation, which wavers on the brink of yet another civil war.

Richard Parkins and Russ Randle of the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (AFRECS) have spent weeks lobbying Congress and President Obama to help make the country's peace agreement a priority and to ensure that the upcoming elections are conducted fairly.

"There has been a ratcheting up of interest in Sudan because people are making dire predictions about the election aftermath," Parkins told the Episcopal News Service (ENS). "It's not addressing new issues but putting a spotlight on the fragility of the peace agreement."

The elections will be the first in Sudan in 24 years, with nearly 16 million in the country eligible to vote.

According to AFRECS, international concerns center around "voter registration lists, ballots, vote tabulations, the access of international observers to the polls, and the peace and security of the country during these days and following."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's human rights organization The Carter Center will be one of the groups monitoring the elections on site.

"The Center's presence demonstrates international interest in Sudan's electoral process while providing an impartial assessment of the overall quality of the elections," said Carter, who will be meeting with current Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Saturday.

While intended to involve multiple parties, several parties, including the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) are boycotting the elections under claims of corruption and weak security measures.

The boycotts have cast doubts over the fairness of the elections and have also left al-Bashir, who just wrapped up a marathon, cross-country campaign, a clear advantage in the race.

The elections are expected to set the stage for decision making regarding the split between the country's Northern and Southern regions, which were previously engaged in a 21-year civil war that left nearly 2 million dead and displaced over 7 million.

The war, which is separate from the Darfur conflict, officially ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), although implementation of the agreement has been weak.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) executive Sean Callahan, whose organization has worked in Sudan since 1972, likens the sensitivity of the upcoming elections to being "on a knife edge."

"The conflict in southern Sudan has the elements that have all too often led to tragedy in Africa: ethnic and religious differences heightened by the presence of too many weapons and the potential wealth of oil fields," Callahan said in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. "If Sudan teeters toward the wrong side of that knife edge, the descent into violence could be precipitous and even worse than before, drawing much of East Africa into that descent."
If the elections are successful, however, Callahan says that the country "could enter a time of peace unlike any in its 54-year history as an independent nation."

"Oil revenues, properly spent, could pave the way to prosperity," he adds.

Callahan concludes by citing that what is important for Sudan at this time is that "its people - in Khartoum, in Darfur, in the south - feel that they have the power to determine their own destiny."

"If we can all help them achieve that, then the Sudanese can finally enjoy the peace and prosperity that are rightfully theirs."

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