Counting down to South Sudan’s elections

Deferred deadlines and poor implementation of election provisions do not bode well for Africa’s youngest state.

In August 2022, South Sudan’s transitional unity government extended its term for two years to February 2025, with an election planned in December 2024. This was to allow stakeholders to address challenges in implementing pending provisions of the 2018 Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

The agreement aimed to end the transitional government with an election initially planned for December 2022. However, due to implementation delays, the election was pushed initially to 2023 and now to 2024.

Delayed milestones

Since the 2018 accord signing, the implementation of each milestone has been delayed. The formation of the transitional unity government based on chapter one took place in 2020, more than six months later than scheduled. Unification and deployment of 83 000 force members were to happen within eight months of the signing. However, disagreement over ratios, rankings, and lack of resources saw the trained unified force’s first graduation only in August 2022.

Despite the government’s statement on the first deployment in October 2023, the security arrangement under chapter two of the agreement faces ongoing defections. These compromise trust in the security forces through non-implementation of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes. Lack of resources and inadequate skill and professionalism of trained forces also threaten the country’s security arrangement.

Sensitisation and awareness campaigns are crucial for a country undertaking its first election since independence

Similarly, provisions outlined in the peace agreement, such as humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, financial/resource management and transitional justice, are poorly implemented. Due to delays in implementing almost all chapters of R-ARCSS, the peace process has already seen two extensions with adverse consequences for South Sudan’s transition. The current extension provides a roadmap for pending provisions of the agreement crucial for an election to end the transition peacefully and democratically in December 2024.

Disputed election risk

However, less than a year until the election takes place, requirements such as improved security arrangements, electoral frameworks and capacitating of institutions have not been achieved. Some crucial steps to facilitate these milestones were taken only in November, including reconstituting the National Constitutional Review Commission, National Elections Commission (NEC) and Political Parties Council (PPC). Making these institutions operational requires time. For example, establishing a permanent constitution will need consultations to resolve differences among the polarised elite and political parties, which are time- and resource-heavy.

Division of electoral responsibility is shared by the NEC responsible for civic and voter education and the PPC tasked with registration and regulation of political party activities. To ensure successful voter awareness and registration, sensitisation and awareness creation campaigns are required among voters and political parties. For a country undertaking its first election since independence, these are extremely important, holding significant implications for the quality and outcome of the election.

In November 2023, the PSC stated concerns not in keeping with the threat posed in South Sudan

Sensitising local communities and party loyalists is essential to guarantee management and acceptance of outcomes to prevent post-electoral violence. For South Sudan, emerging from conflict and new to democracy, developing a civic understanding of electoral procedures and stipulated rights and responsibilities is essential for peaceful participation. Without civic education, disputes may escalate into violence by allowing the elite to control the narrative and subjecting communities to manipulation.  

Security and judiciary apparatuses are crucial to a peaceful election and to a secure environment and democratic dispute resolution mechanism after that. However, undertaking a census, underlined as an election prerequisite in the peace agreement, has been hindered by a lack of security and infrastructure nationwide exacerbated by meager resources. These factors are likely to lead to a disputed election or another extension, which may reverse gains and spur a resurgence of conflict.

Lack of pressure

The multifaceted implications posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, coinciding with the start of South Sudan’s transition, diverted international and regional resources from effective oversight of implementation. The African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as the continental and regional bodies that brokered R-ARCSS, witnessed time-, capacity- and resource constraints.

The war in Tigray, Ethiopia and the crisis in Sudan further diverted attention for the implementation of the peace agreement. Thus, the guarantors’ role has been reduced, at least in pressing the signatories to identify and resolve deadlocks timeously.

The Reconstituted Joint Evaluation and Monitoring Commission is mandated to report to the guarantors on non-compliance. It must report violations and issues to the chairperson of IGAD to decide appropriate and timely remedial actions. IGAD is lagging in mobilising means and resources to fast-track milestones needed for the election.

The Panel of the Wise or an envoy should drive diplomatic discussions on the election context

However, as guarantors, AU and IGAD should look beyond just monitoring R-ARCSS progress. The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) followed a field mission to the country with a discussion in February 2023. In November 2023, it stated concerns and suggestions not in keeping with the gravity of the threat posed in South Sudan.

The country’s challenges will also increase when President Salva Kiir becomes IGAD chair in July 2024, replacing Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. Then, the agreement’s main guarantor will be chaired by a signatory party for the six months leading to the election. This is a crucial time for South Sudan and its peace process. IGAD’s role will be complicated as holding meetings and decisions on South Sudan will require authorisations from Juba, posing a conflict of interest.

PSC role

The PSC should address the absence of pressure from South Sudan’s partners and the risks posed by a disputed election. The subsequent challenges and competing interests within IGAD will also require greater involvement of the AU as an impartial entity. The Council should play an early warning role and monitor continental actors’ participation in the lead-up to the election.

The PSC could request an update on preparations for the election; this could be followed by a field visit early in 2024 to assess the readiness of state structures and the political context in which the election will unfold. It should also secure the involvement of the Panel of the Wise or an envoy to drive preventive diplomatic engagements to manage the context for an election in Africa’s youngest state.

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