On the 3rd of November, the National Conference of the “National Dialogue” was opened in Juba amid a fanfare that it represented the voice of the people of South Sudan. “Our people have spoken” was a recurrent and repeated phrase by the organizers of the Conference in self-congratulation for a job well done. But which people? Where?
The organizers of the conferences have not been to the areas affected by war. For instance, they have not visited large parts of Equatoria and Upper Nile regions, let alone talking to the people there. As a matter of fact, their Conference for the Upper Nile region was held in Juba, not anywhere in the region. This was the clearest testimony that the claim that “our people have spoken” is at best partial.
To put the whole matter into perspective, it is important to trace the origin of this so-called “National Dialogue”. On 14th December 2016, President Salva Kiir Mayardit announced before the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA) a National Dialogue Conference to be held in Juba. The objectives of the exercise were set as ten points including to “end all forms of violence in the country”. He also stated that “the National Dialogue is placed within the framework of the Peace Agreement (ARCISS).’’ The initiative didn’t kick off until it was relaunched on the 26th of May 2017.
Whereas the concept of National Dialogue is one of the ways a country can choose to deal with the root causes of its problems, a credible dialogue cannot take place while the war is raging as was the case in South Sudan when it was announced. It can only be meaningful when the country is enjoying peace. In fact, the National Dialogue was announced with the onset of the government’s dry season military offensive in December 2016 and relaunched together with a unilateral ceasefire declaration at the end of that military campaign in May 2017. Therefore, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was intended to gain military advantage on the ground while hoodwinking the world into believing that the government was seriously pursuing peace. Furthermore, All the objectives spelled out in President Kiir’s speech before the TNLA, except “to end all forms of violence in the country”, are a mixture of matters related to the Constitution-Making Process and issues to be discussed under Transitional Justice that are clearly dealt with under Chapters V and VI of ARCISS. Hence, these objectives could have been achieved with the full and faithful implementation of the peace agreement which he had vowed not to implement. In this context, it was obvious that the National Dialogue was meant to sidestep or replace ARCISS. The noises we hear from inside that conference today tend to suggest, if not confirm, that this “National Dialogue” is a substitute for R-ARCSS and its resolutions are final and ready for implementation.
This conference is not a new undertaking as people are made to believe. It is a continuation of the initiative announced in December 2016 and implemented in some parts of South Sudan since May 2017. Nothing proves that point more than the announcement from the organizers that the conference is to deliberate on the recommendations of the Regional Conferences and tabling before it documents related to those conferences and other meetings held by the organizers in some parts of South Sudan not affected by war. As we all know, the three regional conferences recommended the maintenance of Kiir’s infamous 32 States, a presidential system of rule, decentralized governance, etc. These are some of the issues the ongoing conference will discuss and make resolutions on. The question is: what is the legitimacy of this coming- together?
The most fundamental point to be resolved first in all National Dialogues worldwide is to define its objective(s) and who the participants will be. That is followed by deep discussions between all the parties to work out the agenda, choose a steering committee, and agree on the venue of the conference. The current “National Dialogue” overlooked all that. One party defined its objectives, appointed a steering committee, and declared itself Patron of the dialogue. Now, at the last stage of its monologue, they would like other parties to bless its political position in the name of national consensus. This is being clever by half. Some of the organizers of this conference were delegates to or witnesses of the Round Table Conference held in Khartoum in March 1965 in order to resolve the Southern Problem. They know the steps are taken and the amount of energy expended in preparation to convening it. Therefore, the meeting in Juba cannot pass as a nationally agreed-upon forum to deserve the name of “National Dialogue” whose resolutions are ready for the government to implement. Even if that was the case, our government is not a normal government that can claim a popular mandate.
The legal and constitutional basis of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) currently presided over by Salva Kiir is solely derived from R-ARCSS. Therefore, its legitimacy and mandate stem from that agreement. R-ARCSS is the program of the TGoNU and it cannot act outside it. Where do you anchor “National Dialogue” to R-ARCSS?
If this conference is to discuss constitutional matters, establishing state structures, reforming government institutions, etc., it must relate to R- ARCSS rather than claim to stand on its own or even supplant the agreement as some of its organizers have insinuated. The Revitalized Peace Agreement has provided for a forum to discuss our constitutional matters in an open, thorough, and transparent manner. A full chapter, Chapter VI, is devoted to “Parameters of Permanent Constitution”. It sets out the principles of the Permanent Constitution-making process, its phases, a preparatory committee for convening the National Constitutional Conference that will deliberate on the Permanent Constitution, and the process of adopting the same. This is a consensual course agreed by the parties, not the conflictual course chosen by the patron and organizers of the so-called National Dialogue. It is the only forum acceptable by all to take decisions on the system of rule (parliamentary, presidential, or mixed), what type of federalism, the number of States, etc. The provisions of R-ARCSS stand a better chance of being accepted by all because all are involved in the process.
Also, a whole chapter, Chapter V, is dedicated to “Transitional Justice, Accountability, Reconciliation and Healing”, very essential elements to get over the atrocities meted out against our people during the devastating war. It establishes transitional justice institutions: Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and Compensation and Reparation Authority. Impunity must be fought through the courts, there must be genuine reconciliation predicated on truth-telling, and the victims of the war atrocities deserve compensation.
The people of South Sudan will not be taken in. They will see the Juba meeting for what it really is: a futile attempt to impose one viewpoint on our people and sneak through the backdoor controversial issues that were at the center of conflict in the country.
Dr. Lam Akol
9 November 2020.