South Sudan transition stuck in the mud of floods and politics

South Sudan

Internally displaced women fetch water from a well in Bentiu, South Sudan on February 8, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

South Sudan’s intended transition to a full democracy is getting stuck in the mud, five years after a peace-saving agreement was signed between various protagonists that gave the country some semblance of stability.

And the problems range from politics to floods, hunger and insecurity, piling mud on a steamroll of transition that gave hope to millions of South Sudanese.

There has been sporadic violence since, mostly between government forces and groups that held out on the peace deal. But besides conflict and political challenges, South Sudan often experiences devastating damage during the rainy season that runs from June to October. 

In early September, heavy rains caused severe flooding in Maban in Upper Nile State, inflicting severe damage to camps for refugees and internally displaced persons who had already suffered from brutal clashes.

According to the Jesuit Refugee Services, a Catholic charity, more than 200,000 people have been affected in the region; causing large displacement of the local host and refugee communities.

In addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of people, floodwaters frequently destroy entire villages, crops, and drown cattle, and infrastructure. At least nine million people are in need urgent food.

The situation of floods was subject of the latest Revitalised Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC) on South Sudan. On September 5, Maj-Gen (Rtd) Tai Gituai the Chairperson of RJMEC said the flooding a humanitarian situation in neighbouring Sudan were piling onto Juba’s political problems, potentially delaying the transition.

“The onset of rains and the influx of refugees and returnees from Sudan have exacerbated the already severe humanitarian needs in the country,” he told a briefing session of South Sudan’s transitional national legislative assembly.

“This is compounded by the cumulative effects of prolonged intercommunal conflicts, long-term flooding and high levels of food insecurity. The disruption of trade routes between Sudan and South Sudan has also negatively affected the supply of food and other essential goods into South Sudan, resulting in scarcity and increase in prices.”

South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), form that pool of countries where climate-related disasters tend to be harsher as their governance also suffers from conflict, according to a new study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The analysis published last week shows that their gross domestic product (GDP) cumulatively drops by over 4 percent three years after the calamities, while their peaceful neighbours only suffer a one percent decrease.

 “The more harmful effect of climate events in fragile states is not only because of their geographical location in hotter parts of the planet, but also because of conflict, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and lower capacity to manage risks,” a paper by IMF said.

“Conflict undermines the capacity of fragile states to manage climate risks. For example, in Somalia, the areas most severely affected by food insecurity and hunger due to the prolonged drought in 2021-22 were under the control of terrorist groups that thwarted delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

In South Sudan, agricultural production has sort of stalled. For instance, the Aweil irrigation scheme in the northern parts of the country has completely been neglected after the country’s second civil war, reducing food production and putting a strain on prices.

IMF estimates that by 2060, death from conflicts in these countries could increase by about 10 percent and 50 million more people will be pushed into hunger if the situation remains the same.

Mr Selassie and Jihad Azour, IMF’s directors for the Middle East and Central Asia division, say in their paper that the right economic policy mix could help strengthen the economies of the fragile nations and improve their resilience towards the climate shocks.

“Critical interventions include policies to facilitate immediate response to climate shocks, such as building buffers through more domestic revenues, lower public debt and deficits, and higher international reserves,” they said.

“Strengthening social safety nets and leveraging insurance schemes are also key to financing recovery in the case of catastrophic events.”

But there is a problem with the country’s politics. According to Gituai, the country’s transition is largely unfunded, delaying security reforms, enactment of crucial laws, and a census to plan for the population, among others.

Following the Phase, I graduation of 55,000 troops between August 2022 and January 2023, “there has been no further progress on the unification of the Necessary Unified Forces (NUF),” he said.

“The graduated forces are still in the training centres, yet to be redeployed and in dire need of logistical support. Additionally, there is no progress in Phase II of the unification of forces and the DDR process remains unfunded,” he added referring to the disarmament and demobilisation programme.

Out of the expected 83,000 unified forces, 55,000 troops have been trained and unified, but they are yet to be deployed. Phase 2 and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process is yet to commence for the remaining 30,000 troops.

Over 2 million South Sudan refugees are still stuck in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia while 210,000 returned from Sudan after it erupted into war.

The Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) warned that the elections could be impractical unless the outstanding tasks are implemented.

They include; the making of the permanent constitution, enactment of the National Elections Bill, reconstitution of the National Elections Commission, establishment of elections management structures at the sub-national levels, and the redeployment of the Necessary Unified Forces.

“At the same time, it is essential to safeguard the political and civic spaces to create an enabling environment for the conduct of free, fair, and credible elections, come December 2024,” said Maj-Gen (Rtd) Charles Gituai, the JMEC chairperson.

The JMEC report says that some pieces of legislation have been assented to into law, but their operations are still pending. For instance, the transitional government has not reconstituted the Political Parties Council, responsible for the registration of political parties, nor have they established the institutions responsible for the making of the permanent constitution.

The government claims that the delay in deployment is caused by a lack of funding, but critics say it is due to lack of political will.

While President Salva Kiir has maintained in the last few months that his government will hold free and credible elections for the first time since the country became an independent country in 2011, the first vice-president Dr Riek Machar had expressed worries about whether the country would be in a position to hold elections.

At the recent Economic Conference on September 9, Dr Machar said that there will be no elections without full implementation of secure arrangements.

“Security is paramount, even if you want to hold elections under the current situation, who will protect the ballot boxes? You have to handle the security issues first,” said Dr Machar in a statement to the media, who added that the internally displaced and refugees in the neighbouring countries must be resettled for the elections to be credible.

- Additional reporting by Vincent Owino