OpEd, Politics

The Rough Road to Democracy: Overcoming Challenges for Peaceful Elections in South Sudan


By Bek Dhuorjang Chol


  1. Introduction

The Republic of South Sudan is a landlocked country located in East-Central Africa that gained independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the world’s youngest nation. Two years after independence, in December 2013, the country experienced political challenges that turned into violent conflict among the leaders of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in the new country. The political leadership challenges have been coupled with opportunities for growth and development. Despite rich natural resources, the country faces challenges, including political instability, economic hardship, communal conflicts as well as cattle raiding, child abduction, land grabbing, etc., among others. The quest for peace in South Sudan has been a long journey marked by violent conflict and political disputes. In August 2015, the Compromised Agreement on the resolution of the conflict was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Less than a year later of its implementation, the violent conflict erupted once again among the parties themselves in Juba, resulting in one party escaping the capital through the assistance of foreign friends and then maneuvers again until the two parties were convinced to revitalize the partially paralyzed Compromised Agreement. Through a High-Level Revitalized Forum, the parties resumed talks. They reached an agreement known as the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) 2018, containing the secession of hostilities, addressing the root causes of the conflict, and laying the groundwork for national unity and democracy. Nevertheless, the road to implementing this agreement has been far from smooth or letter and spirit.

At the heart of this political dilemma is the differing stances of the parties involved in R-ARCSS. The major party considered to be the ruling party referred to in the agreement is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Government (SPLM-IG), headed by the President of the Republic, and it includes within its share the former SPLM/A-IO headed by Gen. Taban Deng Gai.  Second came the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) headed by the First Vice President of the Republic; the third is a group of parties that formed a coalition and became known as the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) and their leadership is on a rotational basis among the parties currently chaired by the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, the fourth is also a group of parties which were not part of the 2015 agreement and became known as the Other Political Parties (OPP) also known as (Umbrella parties) headed by the former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs who inked the Agreement on their behalf and the last group which is already dissolved and joined the SPLM-IG is known as Former Detainees (FDs). All those groups, with the exception of the SPLM/A-IO, have, in their various leadership councils, endorsed ending the transitional period and conducting the General Elections as demanded by the 2022 two-year Roadmap extension. This commitment and adhering to the timeline established by R-ARCSS was met with serious challenges. The South Sudanese citizens are already fed up with the series of extensions and lack of political will among the parties to transition the country to a peaceful process so that they can elect a government that is accountable to them. It is seen that this is the most expensive government in the history of the country and that of the world, with an executive headed by a President and five presidents, thirty-five ministers, ten deputy ministers, and six hundred and fifty members of the national legislature. This government has made life and living too expensive as citizens are experiencing hard economic challenges in their daily lives.

The concerns raised by the citizens regarding the continuous extensions of the R-ARCSS timeline and the structure of the transitional government stress the growing frustration and disillusionment with the current political climate. The R-ARCSS was initially set for three years, but it has seen multiple extensions, leading to a prolonged transitional period without substantial progress toward peace and stability. The size and cost of the transitional government, featuring the above figures, have contributed significantly to the country’s economic deterioration. This bloated governmental structure, coupled with the establishment of numerous commissions, has strained the nation’s resources, hence worsening the economic hardships faced by the citizens. The demand by the SPLM/A-IO for twenty-four months extension to address security arrangements and constitutional reforms which remain uncomplete is rejected by the citizens that the elected government will address these issues but if the parties opted to continue with the extension, it might force the citizens to lose trust and allegiance in the parties involved and hence might result to the unwanted ending. As there is consensus among the major parties, the saying that the minority will have their say and the majority will always have their way might be applicable in moving forward toward the elections.

The consensus among the SPLM-IG, SSOA, OPP, and the already dissolved FDs, with the exception of SPLM/A-IO, paints a complex picture. On the other hand, there is a collective push towards fulfilling the mandate of the R-ARCSS and transitioning to electoral democracy. The dissent from SPLM/A-IO raises questions about the peace process and democratic ending of the transition period as the latter has a military wing and fear of returning to war is looming.  The SPLM/A-IO’s threat to boycott the upcoming elections features the deep-seated political divisions and the fragile nature of the peace process. Their demand for a permanent constitution before the elections, despite the existence of the 2011 transitional constitution (as amended), reflects concerns about the legitimacy and inclusiveness of the electoral process. This stance poses a significant risk of reigniting armed conflict, further destabilizing the country, and undermining peace efforts.

The political commitment of a 24-month extension in December 2022, colloquially referred to as the Roadmap, was ample time to implement the Agreement’s mandate as this is a double-edged sword. The delay in implementing the provisions was a result of a lack of trust and political will among the parties to end the transition period. It also means fearing facing the electorates. The call for dialogue is not just a procedural; it is a fundamental necessity to bridge the divides and address the underlying issues stalling the peace process. All the parties involved must navigate the country toward stability and democratic governance by committing and recommitting themselves to peace and dialogue. As we are inches closer to the scheduled elections, the political landscape remains mired in difficulty. The readiness expressed by some parties against the reservation should not lead to the undesired end of the peace agreement. The leaders must renew their commitment to dialogue and collective action to ensure the aspirations of the R-ARCSS are not only preserved but realized.

  1. Security Challenges and Reforms

Recently, we have witnessed the graduation of more than 800 unified police forces, which is a good sign and is expected to contribute positively to peace and stability. Already the first batch of Unified Army was graduated last August 2023. Though security remains one of the most formidable barriers to the successful implementation of the R-ARCSS and subsequent holding of General Elections, the Unified Forces and their deployment are important to creating a stable environment conducive to free and fair elections. The delays in implementing these due to operational or other challenges should be accepted, and we look forward to peacefully resolving them. Phase I involves assembly, screening, training, and graduation of the necessary unified forces intended to serve as the National Army (SSPDF), representing all the armed factions. However, the logistical constraints, lack of funding, and political disputes have significantly hampered progress. The graduation of these forces has been postponed several times, probably due to a lack of confidence among the parties and fuelling suspicions for the security sector reform process to have a unified national army under one command. Phase II, which encompasses the redeployment of these forces and the establishment of joint security mechanisms, is vital to ensure election security, deter violence, protect civilians, and provide a secure environment for the electoral process.

Regarding judicial reforms as a component of R-ARCSS, is an important integral part of addressing the state of impunity and enhancing the rule of law and credible elections. The progress has been slow, and the lack of judicial independence might undermine trust in the legal system and the broader peace process. To move forward, there is a need for political will among all parties to commit to the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process. International partners and regional bodies, such as AU, IGAD, EAC, etc., should play a supportive role in facilitating dialogue among those parties, provide technical assistance, monitor the implementation of security arrangements, and see to it that the country heads toward a democratic ending of the transition period. We (citizens) would like to see a kick-start of voter registration, registration, and deployment of local and international observers.

Addressing the root causes of conflict, such as communal tensions, competition for resources, and political extension, is imperative for sustainable peace. There are unclassified reports that the ongoing widespread communal conflict might have been instigated and supported by their representatives in the parliament, for they fear losing constituencies that elected them in 2010. Security reforms must be accompanied by efforts to promote social cohesion, national unity, and inclusive governance.

  1. Socio-Economic Challenges

The socio-economic challenges in South Sudan are marked by challenges compounded around the political and security environment mentioned above. Lack of political will among the parties is a major factor that contributes to the economic hardship the country is going through, characterized by hyperinflation, which has eroded the purchasing power and the citizens’ ability to pay for basic goods, hence deepening the poverty levels. The economic crisis is due to a lack of substantial government intervention, leaving the population to face the wrath of increasing costs of living and lack of regular payment of working-class monthly salaries. The citizens keep asking, where do the huge resources of the country, such as oil, minerals, etc., revenues go? Where does the non-oil revenue generated on a monthly basis go? Civil servants and organized forces have been badly affected as they have not received their salaries for more than six months. This has not only led to a decline in public service delivery but also contributed to growing discontent and disillusionment among those who are supposed to uphold law and order. The delay in salary payment undermines the government’s legitimacy and fuels grievances that could be exploited by different parties to incite violence, further destabilizing the pre-election environment.

The escalating communal violence across the country reflects the deteriorating social fabric. These conflicts, often rooted in ethnic tension, resource (land) disputes, and political rivalries, have led to massive displacements, loss of lives, and destruction of property (.e.g., Twic and Ngok Dinka, Apuk and Marial Wau Dinka, Murle –Bor – Nuer, Azande and Balanda (Tombura incident), etc. these conflicts pose significant challenges to conducting elections as the safety of voters and electoral staff cannot be guaranteed in conflict-affected areas. There are also weak health and education systems in the country (the Minster of Cabinet Affairs has attested to this in a recent Press Conference), compounding with socioeconomic challenges. The government’s failure to invest in these critical sectors has resulted in poor health outcomes and low literacy rates in the country, which affect the population’s ability to engage with the electoral process effectively. The dire socio-economic situation raises significant concerns regarding the feasibility and fairness of the upcoming elections. A population preoccupied with survival and daily needs may not have the capacity to participate in the electoral process. This might lead to what is called voter apathy.

The government, with the support of international partners, needs to implement urgent economic reforms to stabilize the currency, control inflation, and ensure the timely payment of salaries and arrears to civil servants and organized forces. Communal violence needs dialogue, reconciliation, and inclusive governance, as well as adherence to the rule of law.

  1. Electoral Preparations and Challenges

As the country is heading towards polls in December 2024, the preparation phase is important for ensuring a fair and credible electoral process. However, the nation faces an array of challenges that could undermine the integrity of the elections. These challenges include logistical, legal, and societal domains, reflecting the complexities of transitioning from a conflict-ridden past to a democratic future. One of the primary concerns is the pre-election activities such as voter registration. A credible voter registry is the backbone of free and fair elections. The country with the worst or no road connection will make it difficult for the voters in the vast rural areas, coupled with a significant population and displaced persons. The logistical hurdles of reaching remote areas, with security concerns, pose a serious challenge to comprehensive and inclusive voter registration. The need for updated population data (Census) complicates the process, as the last census was conducted in 2008, before the country’s independence in 2011. That is why the newly appointed Managing Director of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) suggested the possibility of conducting the Presidential, Governorship, and Commissionership elections in December 2024, as these do not require constituencies. Conducting Housing and Population Census is essential to delineating electoral constituencies and requires equitable representation. This exercise should be delayed until after the elections when the population data is known. Of course, this is a brilliant idea if taken into consideration by the parties but if the parties decided to go for General elections then the use of 2008 data only for December 2024 purposes can be considered. The Census has been postponed several times due to a lack of funding and logistics. Without accurate demographic data, the risk of electoral disputes and discontent might increase as such parties may contest the fairness of constituency and, boundaries and representation.

The reconstitution of the National Election Commission-NEC (which is expected to be independent though difficult as its members are active members of various political parties), National Constitutional Review Commission (NCRC), and Political Parties Council (PPC), etc., are indeed central positive steps towards credible general elections and political parties registration. The NCRC is expected to expedite the process of permanent constitution making. The NEC is responsible for overseeing the electoral process, from voter registration to the announcement of results. The reconstitution process has been marred by delays and political wrangling, raising concerns about the independence and effectiveness of these commissions. Also, the lack of budget from the government is another point to note. The credibility of elections hinges on the ability of these bodies to operate impartially and efficiently, free from political interference.

Moreover, the political and civic space still needs to be improved, affecting the electoral preparations. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are fundamental to the democratic process as enshrined in the transitional constitution 2011 (as amended), allowing for open debate, campaign, and voter education. Civil society organizations and media outlets should engage in the full electoral process to create awareness. One could see the challenges beyond logistical and legal issues to encompass deeper social divisions. The electoral process must be seen as a mechanism for national reconciliation and unity. Building trust in the electoral process among diverse communities and political parties is paramount for avoiding a relapse into conflict.

Addressing these electoral preparations and challenges requires a concerted effort from the government, political parties, civil society, and international partners. It entails not only addressing the logistical and technical aspects of conducting elections but also promoting an environment conducive to democratic participation and competition. The stakes are high as the upcoming elections are not merely a procedural exercise but a vital step towards peace, stability, and democratic governance in South Sudan.

  1. Recommendations and the way forward

It is imperative to adopt a pluralistic approach to address these challenges and harness the potential for democratic governance and lasting peace. The following recommendations are designed to provide a constructive path forward:

  1. Enhanced Political Dialogue and Consensus-Building
  • Establishing a national dialogue platform involving all political parties, civil society, religious groups, and academia to promote consensus on key electoral processes and timelines.
  • Promote inclusivity and transparency in the electoral process to build trust among all stakeholders, particularly addressing the concerns and demands of the SPLM/A-IO and other dissenting groups.
  • Strengthen mechanisms for conflict resolution and peacebuilding to address and mitigate political disputes and tensions before, during, and after the elections.
  1. Comprehensive Security Arrangement and Reforms
  • Accelerate the immediate implementation of the R-ARCSS security arrangements, focusing on the formation of a Unified National Army and ensuring forces and neutrality of the electoral process.
  • Increase support and training for the security forces in electoral security management, emphasizing the protection of voters, candidates, and electoral materials.
  • Enhance community policing initiatives and conflict-sensitive approaches to security to reduce communal tensions and violence.
  • Implement robust security measures to protect the electoral infrastructure, officials, and voters, particularly in areas prone to conflict and instability.
  1. Economic Stabilization and Humanitarian Assistance
  • Implement immediate economic reforms to stabilize the currency, manage inflation, and ensure the timely payment of civil servants and security forces to build public trust.
  • Increase humanitarian assistance and development aid, focusing on food security, healthcare, and education to alleviate the immediate needs of the population.
  • Encourage international investment and partnerships to support long-term economic development and infrastructure projects, creating a conducive environment for post-elections.
  • Conduct a comprehensive and inclusive voter registration process, ensuring all eligible voters, including displaced persons and refugees, are registered and informed about the electoral process.
  • Develop and implement civic education programs to increase electoral awareness and participation, emphasizing the importance of peaceful elections and democratic governance.
  • The government should rationalize the size of the transitional government to reduce expenditure and redirect funds towards development projects and essential services.
  • Implement transparent economic reforms to address corruption, improve fiscal management, and rebuild trust with international donors and investors.
  1. Operationalization of States and Administrative Areas Electoral Commissions
  • The Nation Election Commission should accelerate the establishment and operationalization of election commissions at the state and administrative levels.
  • Provide them with the necessary authority, resources, and training to conduct electoral activities effectively within their jurisdictions.
  • Ensure these commissions are inclusive, representative, and free from political bias to build public trust in the electoral process.
  • The national government should urgently secure and allocate the necessary funds for the NEC and other electoral bodies. This involves not only approving the submitted budget but also ensuring transparent and accountable disbursement and utilization of these funds.
  • International partners and donor communities should be engaged to provide financial, technical, and logistical support to supplement national resources.
  • In the case of electoral constituencies, the process of defining and demarcating electoral boundaries and constituencies should be based on the 2008 Housing and Population Census data. The recent population estimates will not work as the methodologies followed do not fall within the known statistical formula.
  • The geographical constituencies should be publicized well in advance of the elections to allow for adequate preparations and voter education.
  1. Electoral Preparations and Institutional Strengthening
  • Ensure the independence and capacity of the National Elections Commission (NES) through adequate funding, training, and international support to conduct free, fair, and credible elections.
  • Conduct a comprehensive and inclusive voter registration process, ensuring all eligible voters, including displaced persons and refugees, are registered and informed about the electoral process.
  • Develop and implement civic education programs to increase electoral awareness and participation, emphasizing the importance of peaceful elections and democratic governance.
  1. Legal and Constitutional Reform
  • Expedite the process of drafting and adopting a Permanent Constitution that reflects the diverse interests and aspirations of the South Sudanese, ensuring that the legal framework supports democratic principles and human rights and providing a legitimate framework for future elections.
  • Implement judicial reforms to strengthen the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, and access to justice, resolving electoral disputes and ensuring accountability.
  • Ensure that electoral reforms and preparations are inclusive and transparent and adhere to international standards to build confidence in the electoral process.
  • The state should be the sole owner of lands (rural and urban) as well as the natural and mineral resources, regulated and managed by the government.
  1. Inclusive Socio-Economic Development
  • Address the root causes of communal conflicts and socio-economic disparities by implementing inclusive development policies and programs that cater to the needs of all states, administrative areas, and communities.
  • Enhance social services and infrastructure, particularly in health, education, and basic amenities, to improve the quality of life and reduce grievances that fuel conflict.
  1. International Support and Collaboration
  • Strengthen partnerships with regional and international bodies, such as the African Union, IGAD, EAC, and the United Nations, to secure technical, financial, and logistical support for the electoral process.
  • Encourage the deployment of international observers and peacekeeping missions to monitor the pre-election period, elections process, and post-election development to ensure transparency and security, provide legitimacy, and ensure adherence to international standards.
  • Leverage diplomatic channels to facilitate dialogue among political parties and support peacebuilding initiatives, ensuring external influence contributes positively to South Sudan’s stability and democratic process.
  1. Post-Election Strategy and Reconciliation
  • Develop a clear post-election strategy to address potential grievances and disputes, including transparent mechanisms for addressing electoral complaints and challenges.
  • Promote national reconciliation and healing processes after the elections, engaging communities in dialogue and peacebuilding activities to mend social divides and promote unity.
  • Ensure the elected government prioritizes inclusive governance, addressing the needs and rights of all citizens, including minority and marginalized groups, to strengthen national identity and cohesion.
  • The government should strengthen mechanisms for conflict resolution and community-level peacebuilding to address underlying tensions and prevent the escalation of violence.
  1. Public Communication and Engagement
  • The parties should commit to transparently communicating the outcomes of the dialogue to the public and engaging with citizens to explain the resolutions and how they will be implemented.
  • Increase and enhance public engagement as part of civic education about the electoral process, their rights and responsibilities, and the importance of their participation.
  • Address the skepticism by demonstrating clear progress and tangible actions towards holding elections, thereby rebuilding trust in the process.
  1. Reducing government

A smaller, more efficient government could lead to significant cost savings and more effective governance. The parties should agree on a substantial reduction in the number of vice presidents, ministers, and number of members of parliament. The need for a leaner government structure should retain sufficient representation and functionality while minimizing economic burdens and the potential for corruption. The reduced government should have clear, limited mandates focusing on ensuring the successful preparations and conduct of elections. All parties should agree upon its composition and should include technocrats and non-partisan figures to oversee the election process impartiality. Create a High-Level Reform Committee composed of respected South Sudanese figures, representatives from all signatories, civil society leaders, and international experts. This committee should be mandated to propose a new and conduct a review of the current government structure, evaluating the roles, responsibilities, and performance of existing positions and institutions, taking into account the need for efficiency, inclusivity, and cost-effectiveness.


The path to peaceful and credible elections is filled with opportunities for transformative change in society. All parties must come to a genuine consensus on the timing, framework, and conditions for the upcoming elections. They should ensure that the elections are free, fair, and credible, reflecting the will of the South Sudanese. International and regional support and monitoring can help in the validation process. Addressing various issues that have plagued the nation, promoting a culture of dialogue, cooperation, and respect for democratic principles, and laying the foundation for a stable, prosperous, and inclusive future.

Bek is a Public Administration lecturer at the University of Juba, and currently a PhD candidate at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), China.



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