An internally displaced woman in her late 50s from Duk county in Jonglei state, South Sudan, recently expressed her pain and frustration, in a video recording: “What was the point of independence if we are still destitute and in chaos?” she said. She is one of the thousands of people displaced from their homes due to vicious cycles of intercommunal violence, that have escalated since February, between the Murle and sections of the Nuer and Dinka Bor in Jonglei state.
As South Sudan marks its 9th year of independence, the goals of its long-fought independence from Sudan – freedom, social justice, equality, progress, and democracy – are far from being realized. South Sudan instead faces a multidimensional crisis of persistent low-level violence and conflict, poor governance, entrenched impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of rule of law.
Four million people remain displaced from a civil war that has destroyed and ravaged communities since December 2013. Six million depend on humanitarian aid and across the country, intercommunal fighting and conflict between government and rebel groups continues, with civilians being killed, maimed, and forced to flee their homes.
The UN has also documented how, on top of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the government’s own security forces are violating fundamental rights and freedoms. More than 2,100 people are infected with the Covid-19 virus, putting pressure on the country’s weak health care system, underscoring that the government has failed to invest in health, education, agriculture and clean water, while instead putting its resources into security and defense.
Freedom of speech, opinion and assembly are guaranteed by South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution, yet civic space has continued to shrink. Military and National Security Service personnel have targeted activists and government critics, instilling a climate of fear in which there is no opportunity to question and criticize the government.
In June, the National Security Service detained an activist, Moses Monday, for putting up billboards demanding financial transparency in government spending. He was released following two weeks of negotiations. Another activist, Kanybil Noon, arrested in unclear circumstances, has been held without charge at the security service headquarters since May 29.
This situation is the reason why many South Sudanese feel that their leaders have betrayed them and subjected the country to struggle and suffering instead of lifting it out of the subjugation, inequality, and degradation that they fought against in their long war of independence.
What can be done to change this? South Sudanese leaders need to demonstrate that they have plans for reforms and that the future is not just mere power sharing and access to state coffers by the elite. They also need to demonstrate that they can address conflicts through political discourse and processes rather than violence.
The 2018 peace deal, a revitalization of the 2015 deal that collapsed in 2016, provides an opportunity to serve and protect the South Sudanese people and build a future with an inclusive mindset based on justice, equality, human rights and rule of law. Yet there are still delays in carrying out the peace deal. The parties have yet to unify their opposing forces into a national army and have not reconstituted parliament since February – preventing key checks and balances on the executive and slowing down legislation to reform the army and the security service and set up the envisioned transitional justice system.
It is crucial for the unity government to prove its commitment to accountability for crimes committed during the war. Transitional justice – with elements of truth telling, reconciliation, reparations, and criminal accountability – is a core pillar for the transformation of South Sudan. It is an opportunity to ensure that south Sudanese leaders are held to account and victims of serious rights violations can access remedies and start to heal.
Victims and members of the public will need to participate meaningfully in the transitional justice processes and in the envisioned permanent constitution making process. To this end, reforms to limit the role of the abusive National Security Service to intelligence gathering should be urgently enacted.
Now more than ever, the social contract needs to be repaired and a just and equal society built.
The new unity government needs to reaffirm its commitment to respecting and promoting rights, in particular delivering on economic and social rights, and follow up with concrete actions. That includes signing an agreement with the African Union to establish the envisioned hybrid court and reconstitute parliament so they can embark on the important tasks of rebuilding the country.