More than 3 million people living in Darfur will head to the polls this week to vote in a referendum over the administrative status of the Sudanese region, the final directive from a peace deal reached five years ago.
Voting began on Monday morning and polling stations will stay open through Wednesday with voters choosing to unify Darfur under one state or keep the region divided into five separate states.
While officials said voting got underway on time and without any issues this morning, the referendum has been criticized by the US government, which questioned the validity of the vote.
"If held under current rules and conditions, a referendum on the status of Darfur cannot be considered a credible expression of the will of the people of Darfur," US State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner said.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir rebuffed critics, claiming the referendum would be conducted fairly. More than 3.5 million people had registered to vote across the five states, which consist of North Darfur, South Darfur, East Darfur, West Darfur, and Central Darfur.
Many of the 2.5 million displaced Darfuris were not able to register to vote and the local opposition ordered a boycott against a referendum they said would be fraudulent. The poll sparked student protests in the North Darfur state at El Fasher University. Witnesses said similar rallies took place in at least three refugee camps in Central Darfur state.
"I will not take part in the referendum as the results are already known. The option of states will win as this is what the government wants. This referendum is meaningless," one man at Abu Shouk refugee camp outside El Fasher, where the turnout was weak, told Reuters.
The Sudanese government's decision to split Darfur into three states in 1994 helped fuel discontent that erupted into fighting in 2003 — rebels and many from the large Fur tribe said the break-up allowed Khartoum to divide and rule them. Sudan, which later split Darfur further into five states, has presented this week's vote as a major concession. But rebel and opposition groups have again cried foul, saying the vote will be rigged and calling on their supporters to boycott it.
Analysts and diplomats say the Sudanese government opposes a unified Darfur, concerned that this would give the rebels a platform to push for independence — just as the south successfully did in 2011, taking with it most of the country's oil reserves.
Turnout was strong in the center of El Fasher, where security forces were out in force.
"We came out since morning to give our opinion... I want the states system, it's best for us," Samia Abkar, a 24-year-old woman in tattered clothing, said at a polling center.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government based in the capital Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination and of marginalising the area.
According to the United Nations, as many as 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, with some 4.4 million people in need of aid. Although the killings have eased in recent years, the insurgency continues and Khartoum has sharply escalated attacks on rebel groups over the past year.
The two main rebel groups fighting in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army, have called on their followers not to take part in the three-day referendum. They had requested for a political settlement to come first and have warned that the referendum will only lead to more violence.
South Sudan, roughly the same size as a unified Darfur, fought the north through decades of civil war until a 2005 peace deal gave it the right to a referendum on whether to secede.
In 2011, southerners overwhelmingly voted to declare independence and South Sudan became independent that year though both countries remain at loggerheads over disputed territories and other issues while the south has slipped into civil war.