The heads of State of the seven-member Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) held their 36th meeting remotely on July 14, with the South Sudan peace process as the main agenda. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni during the meeting prescribed free and fair elections as the silver bullet to achieving durable peace in South Sudan, bringing to the fore a subject that was in danger of getting obscured in the crisis spawned by Covid-19.
After nearly seven years of a devastating civil war, South Sudan is at a critical phase of peacebuilding. An interim unity government in which former foes are trying to unite the country around a tenuous peace and new vision for the country is barely five months old, and challenges abound. Although the major protagonists have so far stuck to their end of the bargain, intercommunal violence is raising its ugly head. And just as President Uhuru Kenyatta correctly observed; left unchecked this could easily morph into widespread conflict and insecurity.
South Sudan should not be allowed to slip off the world radar because despite progress, there is still a lot of hard work ahead. Under the 2018 peace agreement that the parties signed, the country is supposed to hold national elections in 2022. That requires not only a constitutional review but also setting up of structures that can deliver a credible election. The justice, law and order sector also needs to be supported so that it is in a position to create material conditions on the ground that allow citizens to make a free and informed choice of leaders through the ballot.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the primary risk areas for South Sudan are denial or diversion of human and material resources from the task of social and political reconstruction. With oil prices at their lowest in decades, Juba, which is 98 percent dependent on oil for its revenues, can barely pay its way. And already knee-deep in their own Covid-19 induced health and economic crises, countries that have traditionally propped up the peace process might be hard pressed to sustain support.
So much is at stake and South Sudan should be helped to avoid slipping back into the abyss. Despite hiccups, considerable progress has been made towards setting up the structures for a transitional government. To turn the next corner, South Sudan needs moral, logistical and financial support.
The expectations of the average person who has borne the brunt of conflict in South Sudanese are rather simple. If peace can be sustained, individuals will be able to pick and piece together whatever remains of their lives. But they cannot achieve this on their own and Juba’s neighbours and the international community have a binding duty to ensure that the country does not slip back into armed conflict.
That is why the Igad heads of state meeting is of both symbolic and practical value. It reminded the parties of their commitments while also creating a platform through which the remaining tasks can be honestly discussed.
President Salva Kiir was spot-on in his assessment that the peace process was not at par with public expectations. The internal efforts and sacrifices the people of South Sudan have made for peace should not be in vain.