Those opposed to timing of vote on possible unification of war-stricken region say many people displaced by conflict will not be able to take part
Sudan's conflict-hit Darfur region starts voting on Monday on whether to unify its five states, a long-standing demand of rebel groups seeking greater autonomy.
But ongoing instability means many opponents of the government are boycotting next week’s referendum.
The three-day vote is expected to maintain the five-state system, which Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's ruling party says is more efficient but which observers say gives Khartoum greater control over Darfur.
Ethnic minorities in Darfur who rebelled against the Arab-dominated government in 2003 claiming their region was being marginalised say the vote cannot be fair because of fighting that continues to plague the region.
But Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges related to Darfur, has insisted the situation is stable enough for voting to go ahead.
"It is the people of Darfur who choose whether they want states or one region, and we are holding this referendum so that no one else can come and say we want this or that," Bashir said last week.
His ruling National Congress Party says five state governments are better able to care for the people of Darfur than a single administration.
Darfur was a united region from its incorporation into Sudan in 1916 until 1994, when Bashir divided it into three states, adding two more in 2012.
Holding the vote while the government controls much of Darfur and is able to mobilise its supporters may also be a bid to counter the rebels' calls for a united, autonomous Darfur.
"The government can say: 'We're not discussing [this] any more because the referendum has decided so'," independent analyst Magdi al-Gizouli said.
The government has also stressed that the vote is one of the terms of a 2011 peace deal between Khartoum and some rebel groups, AFP reported.
No vote for IDPs
Some groups that signed the treaty have started campaigning for a single region, but other rebels that did not sign have said the result will be meaningless because unrest in the region means many, particularly the displaced, will not vote, while the government will mobilise its supporters in state capitals and large towns.
While fighting is less intense than at the peak of the conflict, clashes occasionally flare, as happened in January in the isolated Marra mountain range.
Heavy fighting has forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes, joining a pre-existing population of some 2.5 million people in Darfur who were already displaced, the United Nations says.
Rebels support a referendum in principle but say the vote has been chosen to suit the government.
"The referendum, although it is stipulated, is not a priority, and the government is keen to seize it and ignore what is more important" in the peace treaty, said Abdullah Mursal, a leader in the Sudan Liberation Army faction headed by Minni Minnawi.
Some groups have said the referendum can only take place only once all internally displaced persons have returned home.
"The priority was the return of the displaced to their villages," Justice and Equality Movement spokesman Jibril Bilal said.
"Whatever the result, the referendum means nothing," he said.
It is unclear how voting will take place in IDP camps.
Many are patrolled by international peacekeepers and anti-government feeling runs high among their populations at times.
A community leader in the Kalma camp near South Darfur state capital Nyala told AFP that residents protested against the vote last week.
But the referendum commission says interest in the vote has been high with "3,583,105 out of 4,588,300 entitled to register," a figure it is not possible to independently verify because press access to Darfur is limited.
The goal in holding the referendum may even simply be to show that it can be done, facing down international criticism of the country.
Sudan has been subject to a US trade embargo since 1997, and the conflict in Darfur has been given as a reason against lifting sanctions.
"It's a way of saying that the situation in Darfur has returned to normal," Gizouli said.
By holding the vote, Bashir may hope to encourage the lifting of the sanctions, which have hit Sudan's already battered economy hard.