, JUBA, Sept 26 – Major Sudanese political parties are to meet on Saturday for talks on crucial issues in the buildup to the first full elections in Africa’s biggest nation for 24 years.
The Juba Conference has been put back several times but is to finally open on Saturday evening in the capital of semi-autonomous South Sudan and is scheduled to continue until Tuesday.
Even so, it will not include anyone from President Omar al-Beshir’s National Congress Party, which is boycotting the event.
The conference is being hosted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a former rebel group that since 2005 has been part of a national unity government with the NCP.
More than 2,000 people have died and 250,000 been displaced in inter-tribal violence across the south since January, according to the United Nations, with the rate of violent deaths now exceeding that of war-torn Darfur in west Sudan.
People promising to take part in the Juba meeting include Umma party leader Sadek al-Mahdi, who was elected prime minister in 1986 but overthrown three years later when Beshir launched a coup.
Islamist opposition figure Hassan al-Turabi and heads of around 20 parties and factions will also attend.
"It is a meeting to discuss (the) important issues for Sudan," namely Darfur, implementation of the 2005 peace deal that ended the 22-year civil war, the April 2010 elections and a proposed referendum in 2011 on independence for South Sudan, said Malik Agar, SPLM deputy secretary.
"We are not here (for) forming alliances," he said. "(If) you make alliances you must have an enemy. We all are Sudanese, all these parties are Sudanese, and we are all concerned about the Sudan.
"We are not grouping ourselves into alliances, we are grouping ourselves into a unified front to discuss the issues of importance," Agar told journalists.
"What we want to achieve is the continuation of the dialogue between the Sudanese parties that will lead us to a national consensus around the issues," the SPLM official said.
However, Beshir’s NCP declined to attend. "We set conditions for participating in the conference but we received no reply," NCP political secretary Mandoor al-Mahdi said at a press event.
"We have therefore decided to boycott the conference," he said.
Among demands set by Beshir’s Islamist movement was for all recognised Sudanese parties to receive an invitation. More than 60 have registered for the elections though several have no real political base.
The national vote has twice been delayed but April next year is currently the scheduled date for Sudanese presidential, parliamentary and regional elections.
The parliamentary poll will be the first since 1986. A presidential election after the 1989 coup confirmed Beshir in power but the opposition denounced the vote as a sham.
Another sensitive subject is the wording of a proposed law setting up the 2011 referendum on South Sudan’s possible secession.
The SPLM says 50 percent plus one vote should be enough to win independence for the south while the NCP says the threshold should be 75 percent.
The two major parties from north and south Sudan also differ on who should have the right to vote in the referendum.
Fearing ballot-box stuffing, southern leaders want to restrict voting to people actually living in the south while the NCP hopes to include southerners living in the north or other countries.
Beshir is the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur first rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in February 2003.