South Sudan peace talks collapse, election called off

At its core, the South Sudan conflict is about poor governance. Solving the crisis should start with dialogue and a new constitution.

In South Sudan, the conflict that started on 15 December 2013, and which has left thousands dead and more than a million displaced, has yet to come to an end. To date, there have been limited efforts aimed at national peace, justice, healing and reconciliation, and huge challenges remain in achieving the dream of a ‘united South Sudan’.

The recent collapse of peace talks in Addis Ababa says it all. President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have crushed the people’s hopes by refusing to make the compromises needed for peace.

A possible solution would have been for the government to commit to its call for elections, which have now been postponed.

However, amid the current political climate, elections could make matters worse. It is high time that the country embarks on a nationwide dialogue with its people to decide on the way forward and save the state from total collapse. South Sudan has a history of war, which could complicate the effects of the newly announced United Nations sanction regime. The First Sudanese Civil War (also known as Anyanya 1), between the northern part of the country and southern Sudan, lasted from 1955 to 1972. Half a million people died over the 17 years of war. Sudan’s independence in 1956 was heavily overshadowed by unresolved tensions between the north and south, while South Sudan’s independence in 2011 left its population more divided than before.

The overarching principle behind the crisis is poor governance

The agreement that ended the civil war in 1972, just like current peace agreements, failed to dissolve the tensions that had originally caused the conflict. This led to a second Sudanese civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. The period between 1955 and 2005 is sometimes considered to be a single conflict, with an 11-year ceasefire separating two violent phases. After the Comprehensive Peace agreement (CPA) in 2005, there was a remarkable period of peace between the north and south, but tension continued to escalate among southerners. Today, South Sudan is at war with itself.

In January 2015, the government of South Sudan called for an election to be held later this year. ‘If there are people wanting to participate in the elections, they are welcomed – but we will not accept the democracy to be held hostage because others are not ready,’ Kiir said at the time. The transitional constitution states that the tenure of the Office of the President shall be four years, starting from 9 July 2011, and the presidential term was therefore to expire in July.

On 13 February, however, the country’s council of ministers decided to postpone the general elections and extended the tenure of the Office of the President by two years, to 2017. With the seeming failure of the peace talks hosted by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), and the rescheduling of the elections, the situation in South Sudan could only get worse.

The current constitution was prepared hurriedly and has outlived its purpose

Even if general elections had taken place on 30 June as originally planned, this could have triggered another wave of violence as peace, justice and reconciliation were being ignored. Voting would have been problematic in various parts of the country, and the credibility of the elections would have been open to question.

The country is still without a permanent constitution that is ‘owned by the people’. The current constitution was prepared hurriedly to usher in the independent state, and has outlived its purpose.

A permanent constitution would be the only answer to the current governance dilemma. Inter-ethnic warfare, which in some cases predates the war of independence, continues to be widespread. Despite many theories on the current crisis, the overarching principle behind it is poor governance.

The government should note that political legitimacy is something that is conferred by the people of a country when there is faith that the government's actions are an appropriate use of power, by a legally constituted governmental authority, and following correct decisions on making policies. An election is therefore a means, but not an end, to achieving this. In all democracies, the governed have a right to choose to consent; and holding an election on one side of the political divide due to insecurity and fear would only intensify a lack of legitimacy, and bring forth further divisions and tension.

The current Sudan People’s Liberation Movement government was elected in April 2010 as part of the Sudanese general elections. This was long before referendum, independence and the country’s transitional constitution. It will therefore be unjustifiable for the current regime to call for an election, whenever this might happen, using a constitution that is not people owned.

The government, with help of IGAD and international community, should sit with all political parties, civil society and other stakeholders to decide on the way forward for the nation. Dialogue is critical at this point in time, and the peace talks plus other reconciliatory efforts should focus on creating a firm foundation for the South Sudan state. This could be achieved through prioritising peace and reconciliation and ensuring a new constitution is in place.

Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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