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By Duol M. Jamlah - 21 Jun 2023

Opinion| South Sudan carries a heavy load on the back as it prepares for elections

First and foremost, I would like to give an explanation as to why the election is often described as a process rather than an event. The election process involves multiple stages, from the announcement of the election to the casting and counting of ballots. It is a complex, multi-faceted process that requires planning, coordination, and the involvement of multiple stakeholders. In addition, elections can have far-reaching consequences, particularly in democratic societies where the outcome of an election can shape public policy, political discourse, and the lives of citizens. Therefore, the election process is not just about the moment when votes are cast and counted but also about the lead-up to the election, including campaign periods, voter education, and the dissemination of information about candidates and issues. An election process is a critical component of democratic governance, and it is important to recognize that it is an ongoing process that extends beyond the day of the actual election. 

As an independent analyst, I'm still startled and very sceptical of why South Sudan wants to view the election simply as an event, yet, I believe we have a load of work ahead before talks, perhaps about the people of South Sudan heading for elections commence. An astute citizen would definitely agree with me if we could see through the same lens that several fundamental steps need to be taken to ensure the widely rumoured election is credible and inclusive. And these fundamental steps could include the following as a breakdown of my thoughts:

1. Constitutional Reform: 

First and foremost, the country needs to establish a permanent constitution that addresses issues related to fair representation, protection of citizens' rights, and the establishment of robust electoral management bodies. Politically speaking, the country is teetering on the edge of collapse and this is largely because of the chronic miss governance that our people have been subjected to by the chaotic ruling SPLM party. Here, as citizens who would love to have a breath of fresh air, we demand an effective constitutional reform that will disarm some powerful politicians and military generals who have personalized state powers, intimidating the public whenever accountability is needed at the expense of our citizens. Institutional empowerment is essential in the sense that our politicians and public officials would no longer operate in a free-range system but rather be regulated by the law. We don't want to be intimidated into voting against our will anymore. It is really sad that our people are inured to this chronic misgovernance, but rest assured that reform comes with changes in policies, legal frameworks, resource allocation, and governance systems, among others. In a nutshell, it is a critical aspect of good governance and is necessary for promoting development and ensuring accountability that will mean total peace to all. 

Touch on the area of fair representation, it is crystal clear that the functions of a member of parliament (MP) can vary depending on the specific country's political system. However, generally speaking, MPs act as a liaison between their constituents and government agencies and provide assistance to constituents in navigating bureaucracy. Overall in an orderly manner, the functions of a member of parliament aim to represent their constituents effectively, to ensure that laws, policies, and public services are responsive to the needs of their constituency, and to maintain the checks and balances of democracy. But in contrary to these ground realities, South Sudan goes by its own, and I bet, if I'm lying, I could be lawfully summoned to be answerable for the lies I would be contaminating the public with. Currently, in South Sudan, we have an extendedly large parliament with some members of parliament who represent no one, not even animals. Members of Parliament who are consistently non-existent. This bulkiness comes with a serious economic concern and perhaps could pose an enormous economic threat that could render this country vulnerable anytime beyond where it stands today. Our current MPs of "Peace Agreement" don't represent any constituencies, they neither know the grassroots nor the grassroots know them and because of this, they have cheaply decided to sit back and chew whatever is chewable. They unapologetically feel more obliged to serve their political parties than their constituents and that is how they are instructed to be by their respective appointing authorities, hence the grassroots get a raw deal. To me, this easily cements any political argument that points to the leadership deficit in the country.

2. Strengthening Electoral Management Bodies: 

South Sudan needs to build a robust, independent, and impartial electoral management body that oversees the entire electoral process, from voter registration to vote counting. We know that the proper functioning of EMBs is crucial for fair, transparent, and credible elections. Therefore, strengthening EMBs is essential to ensure that electoral processes are conducted in a transparent, credible, and professional manner. But for South Sudan to achieve this, there should be:

A) Legal Framework to ensure the independence, autonomy, and authority of EMBs. Establishing clear legal mandates for EMBs, including their composition, powers, and functions, can ensure that they operate in a transparent manner. Here, we cannot afford to be led to elections by a partisan body that is formed by an individual on an ethnic basis. In the world of football, if I'm to walk you around briefly, you can't have a referee who is also a player or who comes from one of the contending teams. This could question the credibility and fairness of the game and could also mean the shortest "shortcut" to violence in some points.

B) Adequate budgets and resources allocated to EMBs to ensure their ability to function efficiently. This includes funding for voter education, voter registration, polling stations, and communication. It is crystal clear that so many bodies like these are always enervated by lack of adequate funding and this makes them vulnerable and bribery-prone. Hence politicians who public resources are at their disposal use them as their base for manipulation of public opinions. It is necessary to have financially independent EMBs to protect the public interest.

C) Competent staffing within the EMBs, including technical, legal, and administrative expertise. Recruitment, training, and capacity building of EMB staff are vital to ensure that they can conduct elections professionally. Voter education is crucial to ensure that citizens understand the electoral process, are registered to vote, and know how to cast their ballots. EMBs must develop comprehensive voter education programs to educate the electorate effectively.

3. Civic Education: 

The government needs to invest in civic education campaigns to promote awareness of the electoral process and encourage citizens to participate in the election. Usually in first-world countries, these campaigns typically involve the dissemination of information through various media platforms, including television, radio, social media, and community outreach events.

The ultimate goal of civic education campaigns is to promote civic engagement, encourage people to be informed about political decision-making processes, and increase their participation in democratic governance. Some examples of civic education campaigns include voter education campaigns, budget transparency campaigns, environmental protection campaigns, and human rights awareness campaigns. We are all aware that our illiteracy rate as a country is at an alarming level vis-a-vis other East African countries. This particular education is important as it would prepare us generally for polling stations.

They could also help us (the South Sudanese) understand how to engage in our first-ever democratic process to be and make informed electoral decisions. Some people mediocrely believe that we had elections back in 2010. That was not an election to me, we were only pressured by the CPA deal and the Southern politicians told us that we only had one star for the CPA purpose. We didn't vote for our interest since CPA manipulated everything in favour of Salva Kiir in the name of the then-awaiting referendum, albeit Salva was not our choice. Now there is a need to educate our voters to ensure that they are aware of their rights, know how to exercise their rights, and can hold their elected officials accountable. A well-informed and engaged citizenry is crucial to the success of any democratic governance system. 

4. Political Dialogue: 

The government must establish a consensual political dialogue among its various groups to create a more stable political environment needed to conduct free and fair elections. Some elements who have welded state powers around themselves think political dialogue means plotting a coup d'état, especially in the SPLM contexts because they don't feel politically secure in any peaceful process that requires a willingness to listen, engage, and find solutions that are acceptable to all parties with divergent political views. 

But my fellow countrymen and women, be informed that the goal of a political dialogue is to find common ground, build consensus, and ultimately make decisions that benefit South Sudan as a whole. Political dialogue is essential to democracy, as it ensures that all voices are heard and that decisions are made through an inclusive and democratic process. It also promotes understanding, tolerance, and compromise and helps to prevent conflicts and violence. We would love to see a conducive political environment where we could exchange ideas, opinions, and values in a respectful and constructive manner. A conducive political environment where we could have debates, discussions, forums, and negotiations constructively and peacefully without "Tiger Division" intimidating us.

5. Security Sector Reform: 

The government needs to prioritize security sector reforms to restore stability and address the rampant insecurity and violence in parts of the country that could disrupt the electoral process. These reforms could help to strengthen the security institutions and promote a culture of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democratic governance. But where do we start?

As known facts, security sector reforms typically involve several interconnected activities such as:

1) Reviewing and restructuring the legal framework governing the security sector.

2) Developing new policies and procedures for security operations.

3) Enhancing the accountability and oversight mechanisms for security institutions.

4) Improving the professionalism and capacity of security personnel through training.

All these could be achieved only through the implementation of the Security Arrangements as stipulated in the 2018-Khartoum peace deal. This is very important because the agreement talks of assembling the forces, training them, unifying and graduating them, and finally deploying them to fill the wide void in the security sector created by the conflict. The parties to this agreement must come to terms with the process, however hard it may seem to them. For a stable South Sudan, the unification process of the proposed unification of forces to form a national army must be implemented in letter and spirit. This merging process of the former fighting forces is the only way to achieve a lasting peace that will see a stable South Sudan in the near future.

Security sector reforms are particularly important in countries emerging from conflict or undergoing significant political transitions. They are designed to help establish a stable and peaceful environment, build public trust and confidence in security institutions, and support overall development and growth. I'm sure after reforming our security sector, South Sudan will have an army that will not see you as a Nuer, Dinka or Equatorian but as a South Sudanese who deserves everything a citizen deserves. Right now, South Sudan stands as an army with a country, not a country with an army. We can only get rid of these vices as a country after the implementation of the security sector reforms that will see our various army factions unified into one national army.

6. Ethnic Reconciliation and Integration:

The government must take decisive action to integrate ethnic communities and address the root causes of ethnic and political divisions that plague the country. This ethnic reconciliation and integration in South Sudan is a crucial issue, as the country has experienced decades of civil war and violence, driven mainly by ethnic divisions and rivalry. To achieve lasting peace and stability in the country, it is necessary to address the underlying causes of ethnic conflicts and promote the integration of diverse ethnic groups. Another important aspect of ethnic reconciliation and integration is addressing land ownership, access to resources and rampant cattle rustling. Many ethnic conflicts in South Sudan are rooted in disputes over land, resources and property (animals), which reflect historical inequalities and injustices. It is vital to establish fair and transparent processes for resolving these disputes, as well as to ensure equal access to resources for all communities.

Education is also a critical component of ethnic reconciliation and integration. Education can help to break down ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, promote tolerance, and build bridges between different communities. Governments, NGOs, and other actors should support efforts to improve access to education for all children, especially those in marginalized communities.

Finally, promoting economic development and employment opportunities can help to reduce ethnic tensions and promote integration. Economic disparities and inequalities often fuel ethnic conflicts as different groups compete for resources and opportunities. By investing in economic development, the government can create jobs and opportunities that benefit all communities, reducing the likelihood of ethnic tensions and conflicts.

In conclusion, achieving ethnic reconciliation and integration in South Sudan requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the social, economic, and political factors that drive ethnic tensions and conflicts. Through sustained efforts to promote dialogue, understanding, education, and economic development, it is possible to build a more peaceful and harmonious society that embraces diversity and promotes social justice.

This will also provide a peaceful ground to address the massive humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the conflict and displacement of millions before elections are held. This includes ensuring the safe and voluntary return of refugees and IDPs and providing basic services such as healthcare, security, and adequate shelter. 

The author, Mr Duol M. Jamlah, is a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). He formerly served as the Executive Director in the Office of the Minister of Peace Building, Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU). He can be reached via email: 

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