By Don Bosco Malish
A decade after independence, South Sudanese are yet to experience true participation in the governance of their country and in defining their destiny. This is compounded by what many citizens, civic actors and political commentators refer to as to the shrinking civic and political space in the country as well as the politicized and captured nature of state processes by the ruling elite.
The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) signed in 2018, remains the most viable framework for peace and an inspiration of hope for the country. It has allowed the country to enjoy uneasy calm. Unfortunately, the lack of political will to fully implement the agreement, as well as the unpredictability in its implementation, is dashing the hopes that many South Sudanese have pegged on it as surest mechanism to restoring stability.
Key provisions of the peace accord require citizen’s participation including the constitution making, transitional justice process and elections of leaders at the end of the transitional period.
Constitution-making as provided for in the 2018 peace accord offers a good chance to learn from past errors and respond to the people’s needs, be inclusive and have a participatory process that includes all stakeholders. Essentially, constitution-making is a contest over the distribution, redistribution and limitation of power, and as such of particular significance for peace and nation building for a deeply divided South Sudan. To be sustainable, constitutional outcomes must involve and include those who experienced past injustices in creating new solutions. The constitution-making process opens the door to correct past mistakes that characterized the development of the current constitution. Therefore, greater representation, involvement and participation of a broad range of stakeholders, beyond those that were responsible for the current constitution or successive peace agreements, would be critical in attempting to capture the aspirations of the South Sudanese and beginning to dismantle the status quo that has only benefited a few political elites.
Transitional justice questions as articulated in chapter five of the peace accord are becoming even more critical for the stability and prosperity of South Sudan. The war, since 2013, killed nearly 400,000 people and thousands have to date experienced gross human rights violations. The proposed transitional justice processes and institutions in South Sudan are both a key test of the political commitment to pursue justice for victims of war and human rights violations. This means that the victims must be at the center of transitional justice process, if we are to realize true justice and accountability for human rights violations and war. As such, the participation of victims strengthens their voices in the hope of transforming them into agents, leader and advocates for transitional justice. This requires the mobilization of the victims and survivors of human rights violations to organize and participate in the search for justice and accountability.
Finally, electoral processes offer citizens an opportunity to define the trajectory of their country by participating in choosing of their leaders. For political parties and civic groups, elections offer an opportunity to mobilize and organize supporters and share alternative platforms with the public. Elections also serve to encourage political debate and public dialogue and are anchored on participation of every citizen. But for South Sudan where there are high stakes in elections, with obvious possibility that elections could be the trigger point to violent conflicts, there will be need for concerted efforts to address the points of tension during this transitional period. The ability of the transitional government to expand political and civic space will play a key role in determining the credibility of elections. Among the actions that are needed during this transitional period to prepare for elections that will be unifying for South Sudanese include reforming the National Security Service (NSS) to rid it off the repressive elements and practices; the amendment of the non- governmental organizations (NGOs) and NSS Acts with a view to create a more enabling environment for civic actors to engage on issues of public interest, and expand media freedoms; development of a legislative framework for elections and the reform of the electoral commission; and judicial reforms to strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
Therefore, at the heart of the realization of the aspirations of the peace accord is the participation of the people of South Sudan. South Sudanese must not relegate this role to the current political leadership. They must realize that they have a right as well as a civic duty to define the trajectory of their country through contributing towards the achievement of the outcomes of the transitional processes. The people of South Sudan must not delegate this very critical role of national building to the current leadership. They must take ownership through participation in determining the outcomes of the transitional processes, for posterity as well as ensure that the aspirations of the people of South Sudan are at the core of these processes. The South Sudanese must realize that there are no reserved seats at the banquet table. And that they must demand and seize the right and opportunity to participate in crafting their own destiny.