As South Sudan prepares for elections in 2024, the world’s youngest nation sits at a “fork in the road”, facing stark choices as it progresses in its critical transitional period amid a range of challenges, according to the UN’s top official in the country.
Part of his mandate is to monitor the implementation of the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement, which ended a brutal civil war. With years of experience in the region, he was the former head of the UN mission in Somalia, served as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Sudan in 2019 and 2020, and was also the principal adviser to the mediator in the Sudanese Peace Process, from 2002 to 2005.
While in New York to brief the UN Security Council on current developments and challenges, he took some time to speak with UN News to delve into the current political landscape and spotlight the choices South Sudan now faces.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You concluded your briefing to the Security Council by saying that the leaders of South Sudan face “a stark choice”. Could you elaborate on how stark this choice is?
I think we’re coming to a peak, a fork in the road almost in which what is on offer is completion of the transition in South Sudan culminating in a stable and democratic South Sudan, or more conflict should the wheels come off the transition, or should they fail to make the critical benchmarks set out in the peace agreement.
What is required is really a change in mindset in regard to the mindset that is required to complete this transition, one which is cognizant of the importance of collaboration and compromise between the political parties in the interests of nation building and progress on the peace agreement, or alternatively, a different approach which is, that almost every aspect of the transition is war, by other means, which doesn’t privilege the nation-building dimension of the engagement.
You told the Council that 2023 is a “make it or break it” year for South Sudan.
Firstly, we need to appreciate that the transition is scheduled to effectively come to an end next year. But, when you look at the tasks that have to be accomplished in order for the transition to be completed next year, most of those tasks for this year – preparation for elections, contact place a month before the elections – it has to take place 18 months or two years beforehand, whether it’s the required voter registration or constituency demarcation. And if they shelve those decisions to 2024, they’re not going to be able to recover the ground which is necessary for them to accomplish some really important objectives.
Let me for a moment just summarize what those are. That’s to prepare for an election, largely from a zero base. That is to agree to a constitution which requires the construction of a new social contract, which explicitly sets out the arrangements by which they can live together in peace and harmony, having had two civil wars in a decade.
They’ve got to create a new national security apparatus in the most difficult of circumstances. They’ve got to deal with five burning “hotspot” conflicts in different parts of the country in order to ensure that there isn’t a legacy of bitterness and conflict at the time in which they are supposed to be conducting elections as a nation-building exercise. So, 2023 is critical.
Your latest report on the situation in South Sudan outlines a range of priority actions. What would be the first key step?
I would want to underscore that all the priorities sketched out are mutually reinforcing – they’re not necessarily sequential – and progress in one is strengthened by progress in another. But, having said that, sequentially, they need to make progress on the constitution-making process because that underwrites the elections and creates the framework within which political competition will take place.
I would want to believe that it goes hand in hand with another priority which I’ve identified, which is expanding the political and civil space necessary for robust competitive politics, but also the construction of a constructive attitude towards creating a future for all South Sudanese. In other words, a recognition that they have a common destiny, which should underwrite those arrangements. So, all of these issues come together.
We are told that one can’t really prepare for elections until there’s an understanding that they will be underwritten by security arrangements, which are not within the control of just one party, which puts a premium on them dealing with this priority – the construction of a national security apparatus that’s impartial, that represents the nation and mirrors its composition.
More on elections, you and the UN in South Sudan have been asked to support the electoral process. How daunting and challenging is this going to be?
I think it is quite a challenge. My electoral team tells me that we should regard it as electoral institutions with a zero base, that it has been a long time since there have been elections and those elections weren’t necessarily robust, competitive political elections, as we anticipate these next elections will be. So, in short, yes, it’s going to be a daunting task.
How do you avoid a situation of the UN being blamed in case something goes wrong?
I think it requires us to shepherd with our eyes wide open to the processes and the environment in which the election is taking place. I think we have to be prepared to evaluate and re-evaluate where we are, along the process. If it turns out that the elections have all the hallmarks of a fake election, we need to call that at the appropriate time.
You spoke about civic spaces. A fair political process and fair elections require an environment of safe civic, media, and political spaces. How can the UN mission provide effective assistance in this regard?
I think one of the important elements of any strategy to expand political and civil space is to conduct an inclusive national dialogue, a dialogue which would take place within and between non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the churches, political parties, even the security apparatus, if need be. I think the difficulty we often face is that we know what’s not expanding political and civic space.
We’re not always sure how to define what is that expansion, but we would know, for example, that protection of freedom of expression is critical; freedom of assembly and association are important hallmarks of political and civil space. We would want, as the UN, to draw attention to the barometers by which we can measure all of those. The detention of journalists or the expulsion of civil society activists would not be consonant with expanding political and civic space.
What stumbling blocks do you see?
I think we need to confront a situation in which the parties will be adamant about securing political advantages for themselves, either in regard to funding or in regard to the monopolization of the media. I think it’s going to be important for the UN, but not the UN only.
This task is much bigger than the UN, what the UN can deliver. The international community and civil society have to engage in establishing the reasonable expectations of an environment which would permit the elections and the dialogue necessary for a new constitution to be agreed.
Last month the successful landmark International Conference on Women’s Transformational Leadership, held in the South Sudan capital of Juba, had called for action in a number of areas, including their greater participation in peace-building. What would you like to see as a follow up to this major conference?
I think it will be important for the United Nations to message in collaboration with other Member States and other organizations, on the importance of woman’s participation in the public life of the nation.
I think it will be critical for us to engage women’s groups themselves, because I think the participation of women doesn’t simply relate to the numbers of women at the table.
We will certainly be putting a premium on ensuring that whether with elections, or in the construction of other public bodies, a quota of at least 35 per cent, which has already been agreed, is maintained and upheld. And there’s been a mixed record up until now.
What is your message to the Government and people of South Sudan at this important stage in their national development as the world’s newest youngest country?
I think it’s important to share with the South Sudanese that it is still possible to accomplish the benchmarks and the peace agreement within the stipulated timelines. We would be wanting to communicate the need for a sense of urgency and that delays caused now will have a domino effect and cannot be recovered if the work is not done.
We know that Parliament broke for recess in December and hasn’t reconvened yet. This is not consonant with our understanding of the current point in which South Sudan is at the moment, which is closer to a national emergency. We would want all the political stakeholders to approach the tasks ahead, as if it were a national emergency and they are required to play their parts
On the question as to how we can promote political and civic space, I think generally we would want to share with the South Sudanese that one of the objectives of this transition is to establish a legitimate and credible State that is recognized as standing on its own two feet, and elections will play an important part in achieving that.
But, if the elections are not free, or not fair, or not credible, then they will make no contribution to the future legitimacy of a government in South Sudan. So, we would be wanting to help the South Sudanese recognize that it’s in their own interests to create the political environment in which free, fair and credible elections can take place.