After three years of grassroots deliberations, South Sudan’s National Dialogue conference opened in Juba on November 3 amid doubts it will contribute to lasting peace.
The conference is billed as the precursor for national healing since the war broke out in 2013 and a springboard for the long-awaited constitutional review. It will last until November 15 and will hold discussions on the governance system, economy, national security, land issues, and social cohesion.
However, despite having 500 participants from all over South Sudan, President Salva Kiir — who launched the process in December 2016 — did not officially open the conference.
His speech was delivered by one of the five vice-presidents, Hussein Abdelbagi Akol, considered the lowest ranking in the executive.
Also, despite Riek Machar’s presence at the conference, his party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition and the National Democratic Movement, led by Lam Akol, are not officially participating at the conference.
Another challenge is that the Hybrid Court — which is contained in both the August 2015 and September 2018 agreements to try those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity —was omitted from the agenda.
Dr Akol said the National Dialogue conference is not the priority and the country should instead speed up the implementation of the relevant provisions of the September 2018 peace agreement, which is now behind schedule.
Leader of the National Salvation Front, Thomas Cirillo also doubts its ability to bring about national reconciliation. He said the conference could succeed in raising political awareness, but there are concerns about whether its recommendations will be implemented.
“We have been pushing for a National Constitutional Conference after the South Sudanese address the causes of perennial conflict. Now that the 2018 agreement is not being implemented as scheduled, the outcome of the conference might be in vain,” said Gen Cirillo.
The outcome of the conference will serve as a foundation for the comprehensive constitutional review, which will address national identity and ethos; the type of government; inter-communal relations; peace and security; relations between the centre and the states; wealth creation and sharing; economy and foreign policy among others.
When President Kiir launched the process in May 22, 2017 to end the civil war and encourage national reconciliation, there were concerns that it was meant to derail the 2015 Agreement that was yet to be implemented.
Most critics perceived it as a blanket borrowing of the political machinations of the neighbouring Sudan, where the former leader Omar al-Bashir often used national dialogue as a means to ease local and international pressure.
However, the debates and consultations conducted by sub-committees at the regional and grassroots levels have been free and fair with no harassment or intimidation from government agents.