(Reuters) – A collapse of Sudan’s elections and a related peace deal could spark a national and regional religious war, former President Jimmy Carter said as he observed the first day of voting on Sunday.
Sudanese voters queued up to take part in the oil-producing state’s first full multi-party ballot in 24 years, a poll promised in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s two-decade north-south civil war.
Carter, in Khartoum to lead a team of elections observers, told Reuters it was important Sudan got through its elections peacefully because of the country’s strategic position in the region — and the importance of the peace accord.
“I think if some violence or disruption occurs here in Sudan it might very well spill over into a large part of Africa,” he said in an interview in a hotel on the banks of the river Nile.
“There’s a potential alignment of support or animosity between and Islamic north and a non-Islamic south, with some of the adjacent countries being deeply committed to Christianity and others not. It could lead to a potential religious conflict as well as a regional conflict in this part of Africa.”
Asked what specifically could trigger such a conflict, Carter answered: “I think a breakdown in the entire electoral process that results in violence on both sides … I would say that that could happen only if the process envisioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was disrupted completely which I certainly do not anticipate.”
Sudan, Africa’s largest country, has nine neighbors including predominantly Muslim Egypt, Libya and Chad to its north and east, and Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia to its south and west, all with large Christian population.
An estimated 2 million people died in Sudan’s civil war, which pitched the mostly Muslim north against rebels from the south where most follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.
Sudan’s electoral process and the linked peace accord have come under strain in recent weeks. North-south distrust remains deep and both sides’ armies have clashed since the 2005 deal.
Incumbent President Omar Hassan al-Bashir last month threatened to pull the plug on a referendum on southern independence promised under the same 2005 peace deal if the south’s former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) refused to take part in the elections.
At the time, the SPLM and a loose coalition of opposition parties were threatening to boycott the elections in protest over fraud accusations. The SPLM eventually only went ahead with a partial boycott.
Analysts have warned there is a risk of return to conflict if Khartoum does anything to disrupt the south’s prized referendum. Southerners are widely thought to want independence.
Carter said his observers had reported some delays and difficulties in polling stations across Sudan, but he was encouraged by what he had seen in Khartoum on Sunday morning.
“It is quite good … no violence, no intimidation, no effort to disrupt the orderly process of the election.”
He criticized Bashir for making two speeches in which the Sudanese president threatened to expel and chop the fingers off observers who called for a delay in elections. Carter Center observers had said a short delay might be necessary.
“It was a serous mistake on his part.” He said Bashir’s aides had since assured him the threats were made in the heat of a campaign speech, and that Bashir himself welcomed the Carter mission in a subsequent address.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)