Mon Apr 11, 2016 6:1PM
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in North Darfur on April 11, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in North Darfur on April 11, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

Sudanese people in the conflict-ridden Darfur have taken to the polls to vote as part of a three-day referendum on the unification of the region’s five states into one entity.

According to referendum electoral commission in Darfur, the polls opened at 9:00 am local time (0600 GMT) on Monday and "3,583,105 out of 4,588,300 entitled to register" signed up to cast their ballots at 1,420 polling stations in 65 localities.

Despite ongoing unrest in the region, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has insisted that voting continue on whether to unite Darfur's five states or maintain the status quo.

A united Darfur with greater autonomy has long been a demand of ethnic minority insurgents battling the Sudanese government since 2003, but they have boycotted the referendum, saying it cannot be fair as long as the region is mired in violent conflicts

"We reject this referendum and will not concede its outcome because the referendum should be held after we reach a comprehensive political settlement ... and the displaced and refugees return to their villages," said Jibril Belal, the spokesman for a main rebel group in Darfur.

This is while the option of five states, which is favored by Sudan's government, appears to be supported by many in the region. They see the one-region system as likely to cripple the flow of services to the region that has been witnessing an elongated conflict.

"Each state in Darfur wants to have its own identity and be in contact with the center without a middle party," said Ahmed al-Dirdiry, the deputy chairman of the referendum committee.

"West Darfur State, for instance, is bordering Chad, and when there is a middle party between us and the center, many services will not flow to the state. We had an experience with the one-region system which has greatly affected us," he added.

Darfur had been a united region since its incorporation into Sudan in 1916 until 1994, when President Omar al-Bashir divided it into three states. He added two more states in 2012.

Nearly 2.5 million people in Darfur have already been displaced from the region according to the latest UN figures, which also show that over 300,000 people have died there since 2003.

Washington has imposed trade sanctions against Sudan since 1997, citing the situation in Darfur. By holding the referendum, Khartoum hopes for the lifting of the trade embargo, which has hit Sudan’s already-battered economy hard.