The U.N. special envoy for South Sudan called 2023 a “make or break” year for the world’s newest nation that has been beset by civil war, saying Monday it’s possible the country can keep its commitment to hold elections in December 2024 but only if there is political will.
Nicholas Haysom said most people would argue that at this stage the political environment doesn’t exist “in which the country can withstand a robust political competition.”
“We need to go about creating or expanding political and civic space to enable those elections to take place,” he told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council.
Haysom said the technical conditions and institutions to manage elections must be established “to the extent that most South Sudanese would recognize that they are free, and that they reflect the way in which people voted.”
While it’s possible to make the necessary compromises and do this within two years, he said, “it’s a fast-closing window of opportunity.”
There were high hopes when oil-rich South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a long conflict. But the country slid into civil war in December 2013 largely based on ethnic divisions, with forces loyal to President Salva Kiir battling those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in the war, which ended with a 2018 peace agreement that brought Kiir and Machar together in a government of national unity. It was supposed to hold elections before February 2023, but that timetable was pushed back last August to December 2024.
Haysom, who heads the more than 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, welcomed the government’s recent statement that there would be no more extensions of the timeline to implement the peace agreement and hold elections.
But Haysom also acknowledged there has been “limited progress” in implementing the accord’s provisions in recent months.
“Accordingly, we see 2023 as a `make or break’ year and as a test for all parties to the peace agreement,” he said.
Haysom said a key hurdle is drafting a new constitution, which will be “a critical opportunity for the South Sudanese to agree to the arrangements by which they can live together harmoniously, avoiding a repeat of the civil wars that have defined the last decade.”
The drafting process must give a voice to all South Sudanese, including holdout groups, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees, women, youth, the disabled and other marginalized communities, he said.
“It’s particularly important that they apply themselves to the task of finding out how they can live together and discover that they have a common destiny,” he said.
He called on the government to immediately reconstitute and fund the National Constitutional Review Commission, and he said Parliament needed to end its lengthy recess.
Most critically, he added, authorities must reconstitute the National Elections Commission, which has been largely defunct for nearly 10 years.
One of the peace agreement’s key provisions was forming unified armed forces, and a first class recently graduated. Haysom said South Sudan must tackle violence in hotspots across the country that “increasingly present an ethnic or tribal dimension.”
The government also must deal with the economic and humanitarian situation caused by climate shocks and conflict that has left an estimated two-thirds of the population in need of assistance this year, he said. He lamented that the U.N. appeal for $1.7 billion for helping 6.8 million of the most vulnerable people is only 3% funded.