S. Sudan election a bad idea


WITH South Sudan in the grip of nonstop violence, President Salva Kiir may think a re-election may give him much needed legitimacy and hence his decision to seek a fresh mandate next year. But what is in the best interest of Kiir may not necessarily be so for his country. On the contrary, it will prove catastrophic, warn two UN experts who visited the conflict-torn country this month.

Yasmin Sooka and Godfrey Musila said an election at this juncture will be neither fair nor free. Opposition leaders who challenge Kiir’s authority are forced to remain abroad. Any impression that Kiir has stolen the election will only worsen the conditions in South Sudan which plunged into civil war in 2013 when president fell out with his deputy, Riek Machar. What was initially a power tussle between the two soon assumed the character of a tribal conflict because Machar and Kiir come from two distinct ethnic groups. Machar is Nuer while Kiir belongs to Dinka who forms the majority.

The violence has killed thousands of people. Nearly four million people out of a population of 12 million have been displaced. Unspeakable atrocities including gang rapes have been committed by both sides. The conflict has paralyzed oil production, the main source of revenue. Parts of the country were hit by famine briefly earlier this year.

There have been several attempts to end the fighting and craft a political settlement. But fighting resumes as soon as a ceasefire comes into effect. For example, Machar who was reinstated as vice president following a political settlement had to flee again last year. But during his retreat Kiir’s forces sparked a new conflict in the Equatoria region, sharpening hostility to the president’s tribe.

It is becoming clear that violence will not stop until an extremely aggravated and armed population is demobilized. Regional interventions also complicate the situation. Uganda sides with the government while Sudan’s sympathies are with the rebels. In short, South Sudan, just six years old, has spent more than half that time in civil war.

So a semblance of order will have to be restored in the country before an election can be contemplated. This means Kiir should accept peacekeepers, a ceasefire and political opposition.

The first step should be to fully deploy a 4,000-strong regional protection force that Kiir and East African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) agreed on a year ago. Only 400 of the force have arrived so far.

Although limited to the capital, Juba, the force would create conditions for the opposition to return. This would enable UN peacekeepers to go further afield, helping to bring about a ceasefire, which the opposition will be forced to accept.

Another component of the peace process should be the creation of a hybrid court, which was approved by the African Union in 2013, to hold perpetrators of serious abuses accountable for their actions. Also necessary is a national dialogue to sort out all problems.

It is true that Kiir has called for such a dialogue. But he would only talk with those who are already inside the country. His main opponents, including former Vice President Machar, are based abroad. Absent their cooperation, all efforts to end violence will fail. Secondly, he frames the crisis in South Sudan as a communal instead of a political one. The major flaw is Kiir wants to reinterpret the peace agreement signed in August 2015 so that he can avoid the formation of an inclusive transitional government of national unity. This only perpetuates and legitimizes the status quo which is responsible for what Sooka describes as “a story of absolutely unimaginable cruelty.”

To end this cruelty, the UN Security Council should consider imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on South Sudan. If there is no incentive for political compromise, it is only because the chief antagonists think they can prevail militarily over the other.