OPINION: What to do urgently for South Sudan elections to take place in 2024

OPINION: What to do urgently for South Sudan elections to take place in 2024

South Sudan’s first-ever general elections, scheduled for December 2024, are critical for hankering legitimacy of the next government once the extended transitional period comes to an end in February of the following year.

Taking into account that there is not going to be further extension of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed in September 2018 and rescued with the extension Roadmap of August 2022, the parties and the guarantors who are responsible for this peace compromise are advised and urged to urgently accelerate what needs to be done to lift the burdens of not having an elected government for over a decade since 2010.

Any ulterior tactic or strategy for squandering another opportunity for democratic transition after missing the 2015 democratic elections is neither welcomed nor tolerated. Right now, the people of South Sudan want nothing less than a civic space with guaranteed core freedoms of expression, movement, assembly, and suffrage.

Elections will accomplish the last objective of the revitalization in South Sudan after witnessing progress on the first objective of ceasefire and cessation of hostilities as well as the efforts by the peace parties to uphold the supremacy of R-ARCSS and ensure a safe landing for an elected lean government of the people.

– Electoral mandate and restrictions –

Realizing free and free general elections in South Sudan with outcome that reflects the enfranchised will of the electorate, is the final milestone of R-ARCSS implementation.

It marks the last phase of R-TGONU mandate as stipulated in Article 1.2.13 on the reconstitution of a competent, independent, and impartial National Elections Commission (NEC) to prepare and administer the general elections professionally, credibly, transparently, openly and accountably at the end of the transitional period as part of the holistic mandate of the RTGoNU as enshrined in R-ARCSS, Article 1.2:

  1. Restore and consolidate peace, security and stability in collaboration with IGAD-Plus member states and organizations, and other partners and friends of South Sudan.
  2. Carry out normal functions of government (e.g., making and enforcing laws, maintaining public order, providing leadership, and delivering services).
  3. Restructure, reconstitute, rehabilitate and reform civil service and security sectors.
  4. Ensure prudent, transparent, and accountable management of national wealth and resources through public financial management systems.
  5. Expedite relief, protection, voluntary and dignified repatriation, rehabilitation, resettlement, and reintegration of IDPs and returnees.
  6. Facilitate and oversee a people-driven national reconciliation and healing, including compensation and reparations of the victims.
  7. Rebuild and recover destroyed physical infrastructure with special uplifting of livelihoods of those are mostly affected by the conflict.
  8. Devolve more powers and resources to states and local governments as a preparation for adoption of suitable federalism, a popular demand of the people.
  9. Oversee and ensure that permanent constitution-making process is successfully carried out and completed before the end of transitional period.
  10. Conduct national census before the end of transitional period.
  11. Reconstitute a competent and independent NEC to conduct free, fair and credible elections before the end of the transitional period with assurances that the outcome of the process reflects the will of the electorate.

Additionally, Article 2.4.11 mandates all the built-up unified National Armed Forces, National Police Service, National Security Service and other Organized Forces to provide security for elections and prepare for this at least 6 months before the end of transitional period.

Once reconstituted, the Political Parties Council (PPC) is mandated to register and issue certificates to eligible political parties in the country after fulfilling the following conditions:

  • Membership of five hundred (500) eligible voters in at least two-thirds of ten (10) states and three (3) administrative areas as stipulated in Sections 6 (11) and 7(3)(a) of the amended Political Parties Act (PPA), 2022.
  • Membership reflecting regional and ethnic diversity, gender balance and not less than 35% women in the governing body or leadership positions of each political party.
  • Head office and branch offices in South Sudan with clear locations and addresses.
  • Merger or coalition in accordance with Sections 9 and 10 of the PPA and for meeting the registration and certification requirements.

The amended National Elections Act (NEA), 2023, also sets out tough requirements in Section 48 (1) (2) for the eligible candidates who intend to contest in the elections, especially for the top strategic public offices.

For example, a presidential candidate must secure ten thousand (10,000) secondments by registered voters with at least two hundred (200) of them in each of seven (7) states. A gubernatorial candidate for a state must also secure five thousand (5,000) similar secondments with at least one hundred (100) of them from half of the counties there.

Not only that but also Section 24 (3) of the PPA restricts diplomats, members of armed forces and other law enforcement agencies, justices and judges, legal advisors and public attorneys, and all civil servants from membership in political parties.

Similarly, Section 16 (3) of the amended NEA bans these categories of public servants from contesting in elections unless they resign at least 6 months before submitting their names to the NEC. Section 35(5) also prohibits funding or contribution by foreigners to any political party.

Above all, Article 5.5.1 of the R-ARCSS disqualifies any indicted or convicted South Sudanese by the Hybrid Court of South Sudan (HCSS) from participating in the current RTGoNU or the next elected government.

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– Overwhelming task awaits NEC –

Once reconstituted, the first major task of the NEC is to announce the exact dates of the scheduled general elections in December 2024.

This will mark the start of the preparation, six (6) months before the end of transitional period. The NEC is also authorized to request assistance from the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU) and other partners to:

  • Establish subsidiary electoral management bodies at states and administrative areas.
  • Develop procedures for voter registration and registry to be published six (6) months prior to the polling date.
  • Procure electoral materials.
  • Build capacity of NEC as institutions and its staff as individuals.
  • Arrange security and protection for all the stages and locations of elections.
  • Accelerate tallying and counting of votes.
  • Prepare the announcement of elections results.
  • Address elections complaints procedurally.
  • Conduct civic education and voter outreach.
  • Facilitate the invitation and accreditation of competent and impartial national, regional and international elections observers and monitors.
  • Resolve elections disputes, including court cases.

The most daunting and urgent task awaiting NEC is the delimitation of geographical constituencies and the registration of eligible voters.

These are connected to territorial boundaries, population census and local government institutions. So far, no new internal borders demarcation took place in South Sudan since 1956. The last population census was conducted in 2008, fifteen years ago.

Local Government Act, 2009, has also not been reviewed to fit into the context of independent South Sudan. All the above-mentioned tasks for the reconstituted NEC and other operational functions as stipulated in the amended NEA, are overwhelming to achieve in a shorter period but can be done with assistance from the partners and stakeholders, including the civil society and civil servants.

The available low-hanging fruit for a quick alternative for electoral constituencies is to use the report of Technical Boundary Committee (TBC) and Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC), which was endorsed by the parties and blessed by the guarantors of the R-ARCSS in 2019 on the strength of which RTGoNU was formed.

That report was compiled in accordance with Article 1.15.11 of the R-ARCSS. The end-result was the return to the ten (10) states and their internal borders as they stood on 1/1/1956 and from which the 102 electoral geographical constituencies and boundaries were delimited in 2010.

By then Upper Nile State had 12 geographical constituencies, Unity State had 7, Jonglei State had 17, Central Equatoria State had 14, Eastern Equatoria State had 11, Western Equatoria Sate had 8, Lakes State had 8, Warrap State had 12, Western Bahr El Ghazal State had 4, and Northern Bahr El Ghazal State had 9 constituencies where all the candidates competed in.

The other alternative for calculating the National Dividend (ND), as required by Sections 40 and 41 of the amended NEA, is to use 2008 Population and Housing Census report (8.26 million people) as the baseline and harmonize this with credible population estimate for 2023/2024. The voter registry should also be used to corroborate this and published officially for public scrutiny with due reconsideration of new realities on the ground, such as the displacements and the resettlements of the local population internally or as refugees in neighboring countries.

– Contemplating electoral tradeoffs –

Though most of the agreed prerequisites and requirements for elections have remained unfulfilled or taken sluggishly in the R-ARCSS implementation, the good news is that the National Constitutional Amendment Committee (NCAC), the National Council of Ministers, the Reconstituted Transitional National Legislature and the Presidency have done their part to ensure that the Country has harmonized legal frameworks for elections, the amended PPA in 2022 and the NEA in 2023.

Nonetheless, this is just foundational. More actions need to be taken with utmost urgency, starting with reconstitution and resourcing of NEC and PPC as well as strengthening the coordination with other elections-related mechanisms so that they can become effectively functional to discharge their mandates diligently with success.

It is apparently clear that the partners and well-wishers have shown willingness to assist and support the upcoming elections.

Among these are the European Union (EU) and the bold decision taken by Head of the Delegation in Juba to disburse 3 million Euros through UNDP so that the operational preparedness for elections could get started while waiting for supplementary budget of elections to be approved by the national parliament.

The Embassy of Norway has also demonstrated unwavering commitment in supporting the review of the amended PPA and NEA, among other key contributing legal frameworks.

UNMISS has been warming to send in more technical experts and provide logistical facilitations for the elections.

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), a German Foundation, has been assembling prominent South Sudanese thinkers, women leaders in the parliament, civil society activists and religious leaders, among few others, to brainstorm on “how (not) to conduct elections in South Sudan” and share the constructive ideas with the decision-makers and the public at large.

Given the collected opinion polls of the citizens by credible researchers, which favors elections in December 2024 than extensions of transitional period, it is high time the RTGoNU and the parties intensify the focus on creating the enabling environment and facilitating the operational capacity for organizing the upcoming general elections without further delays.

Even if late, the PPC and the NEC should be urgently reconstituted and provided sufficiently with the needed necessary resources and tools so that they commence their civic duties and rights in earnest and with professional independence as required by the law and regulations.

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– Bridging the extremes –

The question of whether to go for elections in December 2024 or postpone it until such a time when the key milestones of the R-ARCSS have been fulfilled should now be resolved by bridging the extreme positions of the opposing parties and principals.

It has been repeatedly stated by the President of the Republic, H.E. Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit, that he wants the general elections to be conducted as scheduled in the Roadmap of the extended R-ARCSS so that the heavy burdens of the transitional period and its VIPs on service delivery to the ordinary citizens could be lightened.

He has been courageous enough to air out his frustration of putting the heavy bills on the luxurious privileges of the 5 vice presidents in the expense of public institutions and development project.

The same readiness for elections has been echoed by the SPLM and its allies who together enjoy 60% of power sharing advantage in the RTGoNU. The SPLM Party’s Secretariat in Juba and the Chairpersons in the 10 States and 3 Administrative Areas have been conducting rallies in red attire for endorsement of their top flagbearer for the upcoming general elections.

On the other hand, the First Vice President, H.E. Dr. Riek Macher Teny Dhurgon, who leads the SPLM-In Opposition (IO) with 23% of power sharing privilege in the RTGoNU, has been pessimistic about the upcoming elections because of unfulfilled R-ARCSS milestones and the fragile security situation with widened gap of mistrust across the country.

Though the members and supporters of this SPLM opposition party have tried their best to come up with a counter blue outfit and a Secretariat, yet they lack confidence to come out openly as principal competitors in the upcoming elections with an endorsed flagbearer for presidential contest.

Instead, it is the smallest and newly formed political parties, led by some ambitious young South Sudanese in Diaspora, who have been making more noises for contesting wishfully in the upcoming elections, but in disregard to meeting the tough conditions that have been set out by the law for the candidates as highlighted above.

Each of these extreme positions has glaring weaknesses. For instance, wanting the elections by mere declarations and not demonstrating political will to push the process forward practically with concrete actions, will not deliver the desire in December 2024 beyond the released hot air.

Also, waiting for elections pre-requisites to be fulfilled first, especially when the responsibilities to implement the provisions of the R-ARCSS are vested in those who fear losing public offices if people are empowered to choose their leaders, is nothing much but trying to be clever in favor of continuation of status quo of the RTGoNU indefinitely.

Agreements have their expiry dates and provisions for renewals but only when there are strong and satisfactory grounds, particularly with registered progress on achievements under pressure of limited time to do more.

So far there is no strong incentive for justifying a grant of a third chance of extension of RTGoNU with its badges of failures. Making more noise at the end of extra time in 2023 and not at the beginning in 2019 or in its middle of R-ARCSS implementation in 2021, is no longer helpful or attractive by escaping from collegiality.

Is there a middle way for bridging the declared extreme positions and reaching a compromise somewhere in the middle though mediation and in favor of elections?

A compromise for consensus-building is possible as there is history and wealth of experience on elections to cite and draw lessons from. General elections in the Sudan, including Southern Sudan had been conducted, starting in 1953 and continuing periodically in 1958, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1986, 1996, 2000 and 2010.

Some of these elections were part of implementation of Addis Ababa Agreement (AAA) in 1972 to 1982, Khartoum and Fashoda Peace Agreements in 1997 to 2003, and Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 to 2011.

Some political actors who were involved in these elections and in the implementation of the agreements, including the dishonored ones, are still active veterans of South Sudanese politics in Juba.

The first lesson from history is that almost all the elections conducted in the Sudan, including the autonomous Southern Sudan, were organized under interim constitutions.

Therefore, there shouldn’t be a worry if the upcoming first elections in the Republic of South Sudan is conducted under an interim constitution.

The parties and stakeholders to R-ARCSS were only given a benefit of doubt in the 2015 ARCSS and 2018 R-ARCSS to prove themselves trustworthy if they managed to write a permanent constitution in 24 months within the 36 months of the transitional period by 2022, including the extension up to 2025. Alas, they failed the test!

The second lesson suggests that linking population census, security sector reforms, and return of the Refugees/IDPs to the conduct of the general elections is not necessary. Each of these benchmarks could have life and processes of their own before or after the elections.

This is what happened with the 1972 AAA and the 2005 CPA. Many countries in the region and beyond have done it by way of separation too. South Sudan is not exceptional.

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The third lesson is that none of key milestones of the peace agreements that were tested on the ground of South Sudan had fully been implemented in time. Some of the provisions and the key issues have always remained pending and pushed forward for continuous future engagements by the parties and stakeholders.

What is important is prior consensus to commit themselves and not trash the outstanding political gains. For example, the Addis Abba Agreement and the Khartoum/Fashoda Peace Agreements informed the negotiations and the mediations for the CPA, which also influenced the ARCSS and the R-ARCSS.

The fourth lesson is the importance of the code of conduct signed by the political parties and independent candidates to regulate their electoral engagements and competition cordially with focus on issues and programmes, and not on personalities or inciting hate speech and derogatory statements.

The enforcement of this has been enhanced by good offices of eminent personalities, faith-based leaders, traditional authorities, and courts verdicts.

With these few key lessons, it does not require prayers nor pressure to take to tasks the known and the unknown political actors of South Sudan in the interest of achieving a peaceful and credible elections in December 2024 and beyond regardless of winning or losing. Who knows, the dynamics of the long-awaited elections may create unforeseen solutions to the risky problems and challenges that are being feared to be faced or tackled head-on.

– Recommendations –

Reconstitution of the NEC and the PPC should be the starting point of demonstrating seriousness for concluding the transitional period amicably by way of elections and handing over power to the next government of the people.

It is no longer business as usual. The citizens are tired of wars and vicious cycles of transitional periods. Therefore, the following recommendations are worth considering and urgently desirable for the good of South Sudan:

  • Leaders of parties to the R-ARCSS are advised to converge urgently in Juba by November 2023 to build consensus on delinking from the conduct of general elections in 2024/2025 the milestones of permanent constitution-making, population and housing census, completion of security arrangements, and repatriation of Refugees/IDPs.
  • The suggested Juba consensus-building conference by leaders of all the parties to the R-ARCSS should select 9-Member Committee of highly qualified and experienced politicians to draft an interim national constitution within 90 days from November 2023 and not later than February 2024. This committee should be backstopped by 6-Member Secretariat, comprising of experienced technocrats in constitutional drafting and socio-political and economic analysis. They must ensure that the draft safeguards the gains made in the R-ARCSS document, especially on devolution of powers and resources to states and local governments, adoption of suitable federal system of governance with recognition of diversified national character of South Sudan, formation of lean elected government, continuation of reforms of key public institutions, strengthening of public finance and resources management, depoliticizing of security sector transformation, reorganization of judicial system, mainstreaming gender leadership in public offices, empowering youth for patriotic nation-state building, and safeguarding South Sudanese natural environment and heritages.
  • The Draft Interim Constitution of South Sudan, 2024, should be tabled to the consensus-building parties for final endorsement before tabling it to the Council of Ministers and Reconstituted Transitional National Legislature for ratification and then acceding signature by the President of the Republic in April 2024. The ratified interim constitution will serve as the supreme law of the land before, during and after the general elections until a people-led permanent constitution is promulgated with sufficient grassroots consultations and to the satisfaction of the entire citizenry.
  • The parties and independent candidates who intend to contest for different offices and positions for upcoming elections should negotiate a code of conduct and sign it with full authority to commit themselves to fairness, respect, accountability, acceptability, and reconciliation in the interest of achieving a successful elections and stability of South Sudan regardless of disappointments from not winning or forming the next government on behalf of the people. Being formidable opposition is also a power.
  • The NEC is advised to involve as many as much civil servants, academia, civil society, religious leaders, local authorities, and IDPs/Refugees leaders as well as UNHCR, IOM and UNMISS to assist in civic and voter education as well as voter registration and other critical electoral requirements in collaboration with the NEC and the PPC.


NOTE: The views in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Eye Radio’s editorial stance. James Okuk, PhD, is a renowned South Sudanese political analyst and can be reached at jpadiet@gmail.com.

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