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South Sudan’s future as a state and nation lies with ordinary people

AP Photo/Sam Mednick
In this 2019 file photo, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, left, and vice president, Riek Machar, shake hands after meetings to discuss outstanding issues to the peace deal. Machar in March 2022 urged regional mediators to intervene to protect the country’s fragile peace, warning of a return to war amid alleged attacks by government troops on his forces.

As South Sudan edges closer to the end of a transitional period, it is clear that the world’s youngest country has failed to lay out the basis for a successful changeover to democracy. Four years after its signing in 2018, a power-sharing peace agreement has neither ended violence nor engendered political, economic and security reforms. It has been convoluted and counterproductive, eventually proving unsuccessful in promoting peace.

The trouble with South Sudan is profoundly structural. Once South Sudan declared its independence in 2011, and its political elites began to deal with immediate economic problems and the quest for social and political transformation, the shared solidarity among South Sudanese during the struggle for independence quickly withered away and turned into politicized ethnic conflicts. More than a decade after independence, South Sudan continues to dwell in the shadow of transitioning from a region to a state and a nation.

South Sudan is not, and has never been, a state. It is a failed transition because the very political premise for the existence of a state — a social contract — has yet to be forged, either among the political elites or between the diverse ethnic communities that constitute South Sudan. The failure to reach a consensus on the fundamental contentious issues of governance; rule of law; inclusivity of the government; and adherence to the democratic values of justice, freedom, equality and citizenship are at the center of the unfolding political crisis.

Although the peace agreement has not been successful in ending violence, there are still key provisions in the agreement that could engender change, such as the provisions on economic and financial reforms, and the making of a permanent constitution. The constitution-making process, in particular, offers a window of opportunity for transformative changes.

The current transitional constitution is exclusivist, limited, provincial and discriminatory; it centralizes more power in the executive — in particular, the presidency — which significantly reduces the rights of citizens to participate in the political process, promotes authoritarian tendencies, and fosters a culture of impunity and corruption.

As an alternative model for inclusivity, a participatory constitution could be designed as a vehicle to forge a social contract that articulates the silent voices of numerous groups — women, minorities, disadvantaged or dispossessed groups and refugees — to end the practice of an elite-driven peace agreement. The point is, if a new political order is to be constituted, or at least a more humane society is to be created, its founders — the people of South Sudan — must agree on how to construct a political community, end the violence and rebuild fractured communities.

However, there are key questions that the South Sudanese have to answer to begin to resolve their differences amicably and heal communities, including the type of society they aspire to constitute, ethnic-based or citizenship-based; how to manage ethnic diversity and protect minorities’ rights; how to address economic disparities between regions; and whether there’s a place for cultural values and traditional roles assigned to women that can promote inequality.   

The success of this participatory process lies in putting in place constitutional structures that change the existing political order, promote competitive politics, and uphold the rights of citizenship. Such a context-oriented process should respond to the needs of the people and prevent political leaders from using ethnic groups as their base of support, which leads to the politicization of ethnicity and the militarization of politics.

A well-planned, coordinated regional and international strategy for a participatory, people-centered constitution-making process seems the only feasible pathway for creating an inclusive government at the moment. However, any constitution-making process cannot be a durable solution by itself, unless it is backed by a political program that cultivates an environment that enables a sustainable transition to a state and a nation.

There is no easy path to peace and democracy in South Sudan. But the most significant outcome of such a process is that the agency of change will be located with ordinary people.

Amir Idris is a professor of African history and politics in the Department of History at Fordham University, New York.

Tags Democracy ethnic conflicts South Sudan transitional government

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