South Sudan polls date: Why another postponement looms

Saturday March 23 2024

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit attends the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) 42nd Extraordinary Session at the state house Entebbe, Uganda on January 18, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS


South Sudan is facing the prospect of a second extension of the transition period, owing to the continual delays in implementing crucial aspects of the 2018 peace agreement.

But, even the issue of extending that term itself, as well as whether to hold elections at all, is divisive. First Vice-President Riek Machar is pushing for extension, but that has also earned him increasing isolation from senior figures in the unity government, The EastAfrican understands.

Dr Machar sparked the extension debate following his letter of March 18 to the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), which suggested, among other things, revision of the Roadmap and dialogue among the signatory parties.

The R-JMEC monitors implementation of the 2018 peace agreement.

Read: Machar urges mediated talks over S.Sudan polls

The Roadmap is the agreement among the signatories of the 2018 peace deal signed in August 2022 to extend the transition by 24 months to December 2024. At the time, they all agreed that because key provisions of the peace agreement had not been met. Those included the passing of crucial electoral laws, unifying the forces and deploying them, and establishing an electoral body to run the polls.


“It is true that six months prior to conducting the elections, voter registration should be published. The SPLM-IO has also taken note of the two options provided in the JMEC statement namely; agree to conduct census-based elections or agree to the revision of the Roadmap,” said Machar in his letter.

The SPLM-IO is his political organisation: Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition. SPLM-IO as well as the ruling SPLM and other political entities that had taken up arms signed the peace deal in 2018 to end war that had erupted in 2016.

In the letter copied to all other four vice-presidents, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) Special Envoy to South Sudan, Dr Ismail Wais and African Union Ad-Hoc Chair for South Sudan, Joram Mukama Biswaro, Dr Machar said that the outcome shall only be credible in the presence of a mediator, which he did not name. The South Sudan peace process is under the guarantee of Igad.

Election phobia

However, Dr Macha’s critics are accusing him of ‘election phobia’. South Sudan Foreign Affairs Minister James P Morgan told The EastAfrican that it “rises from the morbid fear of elections” at a time when the government is making all the efforts to hold elections in December 2024.

The uncertainty is exacerbated by the different positions taken by President Salva Kiir and his first vice-president, Dr Machar. President Kiir maintains that he is “tired” of perpetual transitions that have gone on since the aborted first peace agreement in 2015.

Read: S. Sudan transition stuck in mud of floods, politics

Through the Minister of Presidential Affairs, Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro, President Kiir on March 19 rejected any extension of the transitional period, saying citizens need to choose their leaders through a popular constitutional process.

But Dr Machar’s party two weeks ago threatened to boycott elections unless the country meets key prerequisites as per the 2018 peace agreement.

According to SPLM-IO deputy chair Oyet Nathaniel Perino the prerequisites include the unification of the rival forces, the enactment of a permanent constitution, holding a population census, settling refugees and internally displaced people, and addressing transitional justice.

Yet, the former South Sudan Ambassador to China maintained that the census cannot be a hindrance to holding elections because the January 2011 referendum — where people voted for independence — was done without a census.

“There are people who left their homes because they don’t trust the government to guarantee their security. If they decide to stay away for ten years, are you going to wait for them to return before you hold elections?”

JMEC chairperson Gen Charles Gituai told The EastAfrican that Dr Machar was responding to his call for inter-party dialogue because the time for election is coming close with no evidence of preparations. He said that the signatory parties are expected to start an inter-party dialogue to reach a way forward following Dr Machar’s position.

“There is an urgent need for the completion of the unification of forces, the making of the permanent constitution and the holding of free, fair and credible elections, among other issues identified as priorities in its draft resolutions,” said Gen Gituai.

The most challenging provision is the delayed security sector reforms that would ensure that the elections are peaceful. In November last year, the first phase of redeployment of the military component of the 55,000 graduated Necessary Unified Forces out of the 83,000 commenced by the 2018 agreement.

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

Oppositional consensus

Dr Machar aside, there is a consensus among some stakeholders in the South Sudan peace process, opposed to President Salva Kiir’s. They argue that it would be difficult to hold free and credible elections without the completion of the security sector reforms, a permanent constitution and the delineation of constituencies that would determine where voters are registered.

According to the 2018 peace agreement, the transitional government was scheduled to leave power six months before the elections. However, this has been overshadowed by the 2022 Roadmap that set new rules. Still, the transitional administration has fallen behind schedule. The electoral register must be published six months before the elections—which means June 2024.

Yet, the National Electoral Commission is not fully operational due to limited funds. The demarcation of constituencies is yet to begin. One of the biggest challenges is that the country is not sure of how it is going to finance the elections after donors developed cold feet due to non-implementation of the 2018 agreement.

Again, it is not clear whether the refugees inside and outside the country will be registered, while at the same time a census to give a clear picture of the country’s population is equally as expensive as conducting elections. South Sudan goes by the 2005 population estimation of 12 million.

The SPLM Secretary-General, Peter Lam Both, in a letter dated March 20, suggested opponents to the electoral scheduled were mixing up issues such as census, the permanent constitution and the return of refugees as excuse for not holding elections.

“The signatories to the peace agreement must now dialogue on whether we go for general elections or executive elections given the budgetary considerations for the elections and the literacy levels of our voters… Too many election boxes for so many candidates may confuse many people on election day. We propose that we conduct presidential and gubernatorial elections in December 2024 and parliamentary elections after one year,” said Mr Both.

According to Troika, failure to hold elections would be a collective failure on the part of South Sudan’s leaders. “Our relationship with South Sudan remains based on our conviction that the South Sudanese people deserve peace, human rights, democracy, and a government that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.".

“We look to South Sudan’s leaders to demonstrate that they share these values by honoring their own commitments to their people,” said the statement.