Is It Time for National Dialogue or Elections in South Sudan?

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Widespread conflict and insecurity continue in South Sudan amid various peace proposals, foreign and domestic political interactions between different actors. The current phase of the nearly four-year-old crisis focuses on sustaining the national dialogue among warring parties. However conducting general elections in 2018 is also on the government’s agenda that further raises internal tension and external criticisms. Thus the next phase could be holding general elections in the war-ravaged country.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in May, initiating a policy to start a national dialogue and setting up the National Dialogue Committee in June, and his declaration of that prisoner releases are necessary steps. However, it is not certain whether they will be sufficient and sustainable in solving the problems of the country. For instance, to have a successful national dialogue, the solution has to be comprehensive and inclusive. Also, it has to undertake the fundamental causes of the conflict. Initially, Kiir’s call for national dialogue excluded his most powerful rival and former vice-president Riek Machar. But lately talks were renewed, and Machar was included in national dialogue along with other rebel leaders Lam Akol, Joseph Bangazi Bakasoro and former army chief General Thomas Cirilo.

Moreover, there have been some different manifestations from opposition figures. Machar did not accept to be a part of the process. In July the National Dialogue Committee could not meet with Machar in South Africa as Machar came up with preconditions. On the other hand, Machar acclaimed that the delegation of the National Dialogue Committee aimed to mediate peace terms rather than national dialogue. However, Machar’s thoughts reversed lately, and he gave a positive reply in joining the national dialogue.

Regional efforts have been still on the agenda. Recently, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) once again brought the peace agreement of 2015 to the table, albeit with revised changes. The initiative of High-Level Revitalization Forum aims to establish a new timetable for implementation of the peace plan. However, it is also ambiguous as it excludes Machar but includes his representatives.

The country is in dire need to have some accomplishments in conflict resolution; otherwise, foreign donors might stop giving foreign aid for the implementation of the peace deal. Including Machar in relaunching of the 2015 agreement is a precondition of contributors from the USA, the EU, Norway and Britain for supporting the country with further resources.

The USA demands the Juba administration take the necessary steps to end the conflict by imposing related conditions. For instance, in September, Washington sanctioned South Sudan’s deputy defence chief Malek Reuben, information minister Michael Makuei Lueth and ex-military chief of staff on the grounds of undermining peace, security and stability. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) the largest donor of in the country reports that it will review its policy on South Sudan and is known to oppose Juba’s solutions for the current crisis.

As internal and external actors propose certain resolutions, Juba’s agenda might take a different step in the political reconstruction of the country which is; conducting general elections. The Juba administration declared that general elections would be held as scheduled in 2018, at the end of the Transitional Government of National Unity. Earlier, Kirr also called for opposition groups to prepare for general elections. According to the timetable set by the peace agreement elections have to be held in 2018. Thus the government is implementing the peace deal henceforth and doing it so legitimately.

The current phase of ongoing violence-national dialogue and the election process indicates that different parties continue to have different agendas. First of all, conflict amongst most prominent leaders in the country is enduring. The tension between Kiir and Machar manifests itself in the national dialogue process through excluding one figure or opposing and then accepting several initiatives. This situation also shows that future phases of the process will be thorny, fragile and ready to collapse. Also, political rivalry not only exists in the upper ranks but also among the opposition and government circles. For instance; in July, a reconciliation agreement was signed by several opposition groups namely; SPLM-in Government, SPLM-In Opposition, SPLM of Former Detainees. However later Machar’s group issued a declaration refusing this step.

This fragile political scene especially Machar’s absence will put pressure on the National Dialogue Committee that may affect its efficiency. In spite of this fact, efforts on national dialogue have continued because Machar’s return and actual participation in discussions may fasten the resolution process. Machar is still in South Africa where he is under confinement and detention. Without Machar, it is too difficult to conclude or even sustain the process of national reconciliation.

Moreover, different parties may have different agendas in setting up and participating in the national dialogue. In the short term pursuing different agendas may threaten the related initiative. For instance, maintaining a dialogue for peace process or national elections will affect negotiations. Also, several actors may aim to search internal and external legitimacy for elections by being a part of the national dialogue. Especially President Kiir, by means of launching a national dialogue, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and realising prisoners may want to have a new leverage to hold elections next year. Furthermore, reconciliation efforts may convince international donors to continue giving their support.

As it seen the independence process of South Sudan, requires foreign support to maintain its basic functioning. The Juba Administration has been aware of this fact as it repeatedly calls for financial assistance. Sanctions, ceasing of external fiscal support, opposing to elections and differing various peace plans will further increase tension. Hence South Sudan will continue to be under the international pressure to come up with a solution and implement it.

To conclude, South Sudan is still trying to acquire solutions to its various problems through different plans. Some of these plans are open to debate as they were tested earlier. For instance, Kiir earlier declared a cessation of hostilities, but his call did not succeed in termination of the conflict. Likewise, previous suggestions indicate that it is not clear whether the new proposals will lead to positive outcome or advancement in the peace process. Thus Juba may try to conduct elections to open a new political process or wave of violence in the country.

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