Action is needed now to pave the way for timely and credible elections in South Sudan next December, the UN Special Representative for the country told journalists in the capital, Juba, on Wednesday.
“With only 17 months remaining on the Roadmap timelines before elections in 2024, I repeat what I had said in an earlier press conference, that 2023 is a ‘make or break’ year,” Nicholas Haysom said.
Haysom heads the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) which reported that “a race against time” is now underway in the world’s youngest nation as the vote looms against a backdrop of surging intercommunal violence and the impacts of the crisis in its neighbour to the north.
Road to transition
The elections, which were originally scheduled for February 2023, will mark the completion of democratic transition following years of conflict.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 but fighting erupted in December 2013 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. A 2018 peace deal ended the war.
Haysom noted that with the countdown on for the elections, “foundational tasks” necessary for South Sudanese to head to the polls remain incomplete.
Credibility is crucial
Chief among them is the need to reconstitute three essential bodies, namely, the National Constitutional Review Commission, the National Elections Commission, and the Political Parties Council.
“These foundational tasks also encompass the drafting of a new Constitution, where the parties must reach consensus on the constitutional provisions and have realistic expectations on what can be done in the remaining time and within existing resource constraints,” he added.
Leaders will also have to finalize transitional security arrangements and create a conducive political and civic environment that promotes free and open debate.
“Simply holding elections is not enough – the credibility, transparency and inclusivity of the process is what brings legitimacy,” he said.
“This includes that political parties must be able to register and campaign freely; a civil society that will serve as extended arms for civic education and act as observer watchdog of the process. It includes a media that can report on the process and give space to the variety of voices and opinions for voters to make informed choices.”
Sudan war’s impact
Haysom reiterated the UN Mission’s ongoing support for electoral and constitution-making processes in, together with regional partners such as the African Union and the East African bloc IGAD.
He also highlighted the impact of the Sudan crisis on the country.
“The war in Sudan dominates regional and global attention, while South Sudan bears a share of the crisis. Food prices have increased, lowering the ability of vulnerable households’ access food and meet basic requirements, while reduced cross-border trade has led to localized scarcity of food commodities,” he said.
South Sudan has so far received some 190,000 people who have fled the fighting, most of whom are returnees. With numbers rising, humanitarians have urgently appealed for $26.4 million to provide the arrivals with onward transportation from border areas. He also pointed to the potential for violence, given the daily influx of people.
“The congestion and increased competition over scarce resources could exacerbate existing inter-communal tensions between the returnees and host communities and between some of the returnee communities and this needs to be averted,” he said.
In response, UNMISS has intensified patrols and reinforced its military presence in the border town of Renk to mitigate and prevent any outbreak of violence.
Haysom also spoke about other critical issues, including ongoing efforts by UNMISS to protect civilians in and around the city of Malakal following communal clashes last month in the UN Protection Site, and its proactive response to reported escalations in Jonglei and Greater Pibor.
In conclusion, he highlighted the pressing need within South Sudan to deepen mutual trust between communities and their leaders, build common purpose and a shared vision of the future.
“I believe there will be international willingness to support the peace process and the elections if there are demonstrable actions by the principal stakeholders in those elections and the right frameworks to allow for the receipt of such assistance,” he said.
“But key decisions about electoral, constitutional and security structures must be made urgently; and these decisions do not require special additional resources. Success in this area will persuade donors and international partners that a peaceful and secure South Sudan is a viable place for investment and support.”