Numerous hurdles ahead of South Sudan’s first-ever general election

Monday July 10 2023

President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan. PHOTO | NMG


South Sudan is now 12 years old, but the celebrations may not be as loud as expected of a country marking an independence anniversary. And, after years of war, the South Sudanese are still waiting for the day they will line up again, since that historic referendum in 2011, to elect their leaders.

The country has failed in previous attempts, blamed on insecurity, lack of funds and other challenges. And the latest bid is planned for December 2024. This week, President Salva Kiir promised that it will happen.

Read: Kiir pledges South Sudan's first election

"We are committed to implement the chapters in the Revitalised Peace Agreement as stated, and the election will take place in 2024,” President Kiir said on Monday, after his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) endorsed him to run for president.

But he did admit that the road to those polls won’t be smooth.

He has been the country’s only President since it gained independence, but he has never been elected.


Since 2017, the country has not been able to publicly celebrate Independence, Day citing financial constraints to a struggling economy. In fact, some questioned the need for the ceremony.

This anniversary, though, comes at a point of reflection: Will the country have the capacity to hold credible elections in 17 months’ time? There is also the question of the status of the implementation of the 2018 peace agreement, known formally as the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), which helped bring together a coalition of President Kiir and former opponents and armed groups, including his First Vice-President Riek Machar.

South Sudan Permanent Representative to the African Union James Morgan says Juba will prove itself this time round.

“South Sudan will hold its first democratic elections in 2024 bringing to an end the past years of political uncertainty, instability, and conflicts,” Mr Morgan said.

The head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Nicholas Hayson, expressed concern, however, that this year will be a “make-or-break” period for the country. For South Sudan to hold credible elections, it needs to complete security sector reforms, resettle more than two million refugees in the neighbouring countries, and enact a permanent constitution.

Read: UN to advise South Sudan on poll preparations

The chairman of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), Maj-Gen (rtd) Charles Gituai, on June 21, told the UN Security Council that for South Sudan to hold free and credible elections in December 2024, the unification and redeployment of forces must be completed in order to provide election-related security; institutions concerned with the preparation of conduct of elections such as the Political Parties Council and the National Elections Commission must be reconstituted.

The third prerequisite is to complete a people-centred constitution to guide the conduct of elections; carry out judicial reforms to enhance the capacity and independence of the judicial institutions to deal with elections-related disputes; and the improvement to the overall political and civic space in which multiparty elections are conducted.

“The 2018 peace agreement legitimises the Transitional Government of National Unity and remains the most plausible blueprint for a peaceful transition. With prospects of elections looming only 18 months away, there is a need for our collective efforts to focus on South Sudan at this critical time and ensure that the Agreement is implemented in letter and spirit,” said Maj-Gen Gituai.

He added that over the past five years of the implementation of the agreement, South Sudan has enjoyed its longest period of relative peace and stability since its independence. However, the pace of implementation has been slow, as much of what was expected to have been implemented by the end of the stipulated 36 months of the transitional period was not achieved.

Consequently, the Revitalised Peace Agreement was extended for 24 months, from February 2023 to February 2025, to enable the completion of the unification of forces, the making of the permanent constitution, and to prepare for the conduct of credible, free, and fair elections in December 2024.

Read: Salva Kiir puts South Sudan on edge

Overall, key achievements in the implementation include the fact that the parties have addressed the issues of governance with the executive and legislative arms of the transitional government having been established at both the national and state levels.

The dispute over the number of states was resolved, and the peace agreement was incorporated into the transitional constitution.
Also, some crucial legal, judicial, and institutional reforms are ongoing.

There have also been security arrangements, with about 55,000 of the expected 83,000 unified have been trained.

These troops remain in their training areas awaiting deployment to their respective units. However, Phase 2 and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process is yet to commence.

On humanitarian affairs, the opening of key humanitarian corridors has facilitated the return of some South Sudanese refugees and IDPs.

However, over 2 million South Sudan refugees are still stuck in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

Read: Hunger forcing South Sudan refugees out of Uganda

Peter Biar Ajak, a South Sudanese peace activist, scholar, and former political prisoner says that over 80 percent desire that elections will be held so as to help South Sudan move forward. “But despite this excitement from the people of South Sudan to go to the ballot, many prerequisites remain outstanding and could hinder the conduct of free and fair elections,” he says.

Then there is the issue of the constitution which could take time.

The constitution will allow South Sudanese to debate and agree on critical issues of governance including: whether the country will have a presidential or a parliamentary system of governance; the nature of federal arrangement between the national government and sub-national units; term limits for executive and legislative posts; whether to adopt federalisms being agitated by holdout groups such as Gen Thomas Cirillo; the independence of judiciary and development of robust dispute resolution mechanisms.

Gen Gituai says that challenges abound. There is a trust deficit among the parties; a lack of adequate resources; a lack of capacity of some institutions relevant to the implementation of the peace agreement; persistent levels of inter-communal violence in the states; negative activities of the holdout groups, and natural calamities like floods.

“Without predictable and adequate funding, our assessment is that South Sudan will continue to struggle to adhere to the implementation schedule of the agreement Most recently, additional strain has been placed on humanitarian and other resources in South Sudan by the influx of refugees and returnees from the conflict in the Republic of Sudan,” said Gen Gituai.

Read: Why peace has eluded South Sudan

The country needs at least $50 million for the National Election Commission (Nec) to conduct the general elections.

According to a new survey released by the UN Mission in South Sudan on June 21, the security situation in South Sudan declined in 2022 compared with 2021, with more than half of South Sudanese expressing concerns about their safety.