South Sudan promises elections amid protests of insecurity, unpreparedness

Sunday April 14 2024

Following the cessation of a civil war in 2018 and the attainment of independence in 2011, South Sudan was initially scheduled to hold elections before February 2023. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


South Sudan is launching a voter registration programme in what observers term the surest sign Juba plans to go ahead with elections, even as stakeholders pull apart on the country’s democratic transition.

The chairperson of the National Elections Commission (NEC), Abednego Akok Kacuol, told a news conference in Juba the electoral body has deployed registration officers in all the 10 states in readiness for the exercise.

But there are protests to the plan with arguments of insufficient environment for the country to organise free and fair elections, which require money and security.

Pagan Amum, the leader of the Real-SPLM, one of the parties to the peace deal of 2018, argued the circumstances in South Sudan make it difficult to hold a free and fair poll “in six months.”

Read: S.Sudan risks delayed 2024 polls due to ‘stuck’ deal

“The permanent constitution which is the legal basis for election is not yet adopted and many other prerequisites are not in place. President (Salva) Kiir is taking South Sudanese people for a ride.”


Juba’s electoral programme, however, is also a product of pressure from its allies. The US, for example, has insisted the country needs to get out of the transition mode: South Sudan has never held elections since it seceded from Sudan in 2011 and President Salva Kiir has been head of state since then.

He had actually been leader of the then autonomous Southern Sudan since 2005 after the death of John Garang.

The electoral body, meanwhile, says that it has prepared the registration schedule to be approved by all the parties of the 2018 peace agreement.

The decision to hold elections has already received the support of the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who on April 8 wrote a letter the president of the UN Security Council, Venessa Frazier, saying that “Critical mass” of the implementation of the peace agreement has been archived.

“In view of the recent public declarations of support for elections in South Sudan by both Igad and the African Union, the United Nations, too, stands in support.

“The UN will continue to be guided by the relevant mandates of the Security Council in this regard,” wrote Mr Guterres, who had on February 26 informed the council that he would undertake an assessment of the election preparedness in South Sudan.

Read: UN urges free S.Sudan poll campaigns

This means that the Security Council is expected to approve or fault the findings. The UN support will be a big boost to President Kiir who has been insisting that the country will hold elections in December 2024, despite misgivings from some stakeholders.

Among those with misgivings is first vice-president, Dr Riek Machar, who maintains that the country cannot hold credible elections if key prerequisites such as security arrangements have not been implemented.

After the civil war ended in 2018, South Sudan was supposed to conduct elections for the first time by February 2023.

However, the stakeholders in the transitional agreed to push the elections back until December 2024 to allow for the implementation of key prerequisites.

Besides a shaky security arrangement that has seen 53,000 of the 83,000 necessary forces unified, there are still concerns over the registration of voters and the delineation of the constituencies, the permanent constitution, census and the return of the refugees in neighbouring countries and the settlement of the internally displaced.

The government is yet to complete a peace agreement with the hold-out groups that has been transferred from Rome to Kenya under the leadership of President William Ruto— a deal that is yet to be accepted by all the opposition.

South Sudan Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Relations, James Morgan, said that starting voter registration in June is enough time to enable voter verification for elections to take place on time in December.

Read: S.Sudan begins preparations for December polls

However, former assistant minister for foreign affairs, Dr Cirono Hiteny, who is a member of the hold-out groups (those who refused to sign the 2018 peace deal), says that the “real” intention of President Kiir is to stay in power either through sham elections or an extension of the transition.

“President Kiir is not serious on elections and time will tell because he is being confronted with lots of challenges, both economic and political. Juba believes that the elections rhetoric is something that can remove the log from President Kiir’s eyes,” said Dr Hiteny.

President Kiir has repeatedly said that he is tired of perpetual extensions and that there will be no extension. In March, the government suggested an executive election, in case of serious challenges.

Here, voters are to elect the president and governors in December and elect members of parliament after one year. The argument is that marking multiple ballot papers would be challenging to the voters given South Sudan’s high percentage of illiteracy. Just about a third of the country’s estimated 11 million people can read and write.

It is worse among women as just about two in every 10 women can read and write, according to UN estimates.

Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), a local rights lobby, said Juba was squeezed on time to hold credible elections.

He, however, said that the time for voter registration and verification from June to December is reasonable if only there is political will and reduction in the armed politically motivated violence in the communities.

“Timely funding of the voter registration and verification is required if the NEC wants to succeed,” he said.

Mr Kacuol had announced that the Commission will soon forward the funding plan to parliament.

Akol Miyen Kuol, a South Sudanese author and a political commentator, said that South Sudan can only conduct elections in December if the transitional government skips a number of the requirements and provisions of the peace agreement.

“They will conduct the election in December 2024 without having some of the requirements in place or implementing some of provisions of the peace deal. It is a choice between meeting the election deadline and fully implementing the 2018 peace agreement,” said Mr Kuol.