Overlooked political challenges return to haunt South Sudan

Wednesday July 14 2021
South Sudan refugees.

Newly arrived refugees from South Sudan sell food at the Ngomoromo border post, on the Ugandan side, on April 10, 2017. For South Sudan, refugees are an old problem. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


The story of South Sudan, had political leaders not overlooked challenges at independence, would have been better on its tenth anniversary.

As the country marked 10 years since it seceded from Sudan, key stakeholders involved in the country’s search for peace, stability and justice say personal interests, lack of unity, and departure from the original vision for independence conspired to derail the country.

Battered by war, South Sudan is celebrating its anniversary with nearly five million people still displaced by violence and considered hungry, another two million staying in neighbouring countries as refugees and a sore lack of basic commodities occasioned by an unstable economy. All these are related to its enduring conflict, only brought to a halt after leaders — President Salva Kiir and his then nemesis Riek Machar and 10 other groups — signed a peace agreement in 2018 and established a government of national unity last year in February.

Path to stability

Yet even that peace deal has been poorly implemented, with spontaneous violence reported nearly every week across the country. Maj-Gen (Rtd) Charles Tai Gituai, the interim Chairperson of the Revitalised Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC) says the country is on the path to stability but only if it adopts the peace agreement in full.

“When the people of South Sudan voted for independence, they had a vision for their country,” he told The EastAfrican on Tuesday, referring to peace, development and prosperity as pledged by the new nation.


“Notwithstanding the conflicts that occurred since then, their vision still remains. The peace agreement they signed in September 2018 is evidence that despite the challenges they have faced, the people of South Sudan are committed to working together to achieve their national vision.”

That peace agreement demanded that a full government is formed inclusive of the then warring parties, that steps be taken to train, professionalise and merge the army from the then fighting groups and that a hybrid court be established to deal with atrocities and help reconcile the country.

Daniel Y. Deng, a bush-era veteran for South Sudan’s independence war, called this anniversary a “mourning” session rather than a celebration.

“We have had nothing to bring us hope. The leaders have ruined our economy, mismanaged resources and instilled tribalism, corruption and nepotism,” Deng, also the Chairman of the South Sudan Peace Coalition and a member of the South Sudan Civil Society Forum, told The EastAfrican.

These problems, he argued, have added to the humanitarian crisis that emerged from the post-independence bouts of war. And with some of the leaders in the unity government facing sanctions for past atrocities, he argued, only concerted pressure from the region and beyond will help stabilise South Sudan.

“Citizens are putting their hopes on the international community, continental and regional bodies to act quickly against KiiRiek’s administration and the perpetrators who are enjoying leadership immune with impunity against civil population,” he lamented, using the portmanteau of Salva Kiir and Riek Machar’s unity government.

While the two leaders’ reunion after years of fighting brought hope of the country re-establishing its prosperity path, critics argue that delayed implementation has meant low pace of reforms, delayed formation of institutions such as the transitional legislature and almost no certainty the country will pull off national election and come out of its transition.

Last week, President Kiir revoked the appointment of 35 lawmakers to the Revitalised Transitional Legislative Assembly. He gave no reasons, but it meant the crucial arm of government has still not been established in full, more than a year after the unity government was established. It had been expected that a new list would be gazetted before independence celebrations, but Kiir’s office did not immediately confirm this.

The problems of South Sudan, however, are not yesterday’s, they began long before the country even attained independence. Refugees, ethnic militia, poverty, illiteracy and hunger have defined the territory of today’s South Sudan for decades.

Leaders overlooked them for personal interest. And it began by abandoning the original vision of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the rebel group led by John Garang which later became the founding ruling party of South Sudan.

“One of the cardinal mistakes was that the SPLM/A failed to manage the transition from liberation movement into a political party. It failed to come up with a political programme to build a nation and safeguard the party,” James Oryema, a senior member of the Riek Machar-led SPLM-IO told The EastAfrican.

Shared sorrow

“There has been no mechanism of internal power transfer; and, lack of tolerance to different views within the party. I doubt if SPLM as a party has learnt any lessons but the people are learning to live in harmony. War has made everyone to share in the sorrow,” he said, referring to the original cause of conflict in December 2013, when SPLM members loyal to Dr Machar bickered with those of Kiir. The divisions broke into the military as war erupted.

“Despite all these, there is high hope for the country because majority of the people dislike war and are working for peace,” Oryema said.

The country’s immediate challenge is to resolve a humanitarian crisis. But Deng argued there is a need to reopen civil liberties, a free media, youth empowerment and political freedoms. Then mop up the arms, unify the more than 83,000 armed groups into an army and establish punitive measures for those who attempt to break peace.

Maj-Gen (Rtd) Gituai says solutions to all these problems depend on just how far South Sudan adopts the peace deal.

“In South Sudan, implementing fully the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in letter and spirit is the best way of creating an enduring condition of peace,” he told The EastAfrican, referring to the agreement mediated by regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad).

“Full implementation of the R-ARCSS will realise the means of bringing stability and prosperity, unify the security forces, atone for the past, undertake key reforms of the judiciary and the economy, and put in place mechanisms ready to harmoniously manage future disagreements among the parties.”

R-JMEC, created by Igad, oversees the implementation of chapters of the agreement. And Maj-Gen (rtd) Gituai said he has been prevailing upon all leaders to implement the agreement.

“It is a challenging process, and the people of South Sudan need all their friends in the region to lend their support.”