INTERVIEW: South Sudan not ready for elections! Award-winning rights activist

Lorna Merekaje says South Sudan is not ready for elections and that the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement has been lackluster and wanting due to the lack of political will by the signatories to the treaty (PHOTO /Courtesy)

JUBA — Lorna Merekaje is an award-winning South Sudanese human rights defender, civil rights activist, and peace advocate who is also the Secretary General of the South Sudan Democratic Engagement, Monitoring, and Observation Program.

She received the prestigious German-French Human Rights Award for advancing the rights of the vulnerable in 20202.

Ms. Merekaje told media in an interview that the Juba was not ready for elections and that the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement has been lackluster and wanting due to the lack of political will by the signatories to the treaty.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: What is your assessment of the progress of the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement so far?

A: In my assessment, I think not so much attention has been focused on the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement and I would not say that I am impressed by how the agreement has been implemented. I often say that implementation of the agreement has been done intermittently and we all know we are left with a few months and the agreement is coming to an end.  This poses a lot of questions and this coming to an end of the agreement has several dimensions but I would mention two.

A very important one is the question of the legitimacy of the revitalized transitional government. Number two is that it also raises the question of are these political actors really able to deliver peace? Because if you look at what is in the agreement, it is quite straightforward and if there was a will, we could have implemented most of the things. Let us take for example what makes them not reconstitute the commission for the graduation of the unified forces. They bring the excuse that I do not believe; that they do not have guns. I think South Sudan has a lot of arms. Also, why is it that commissions like the Electoral Commission and others have not been constituted?

That is what makes me say that there has been no political will to implement the agreement.

Q: How do you think the delays in the implementation of the peace agreement will impact the people of South Sudan?

A: It is so devastating to the people because when the agreement was signed in 2018, it was received with a lot of hope. I must appreciate that widespread violence reduced to some extent but there has been a systematic kind of violence that has been seen in all states which are unfortunate. Secondly, if you look at the agreement, it is a beautiful document. I usually say, if we loved our country, the political actors in this agreement would use this beautiful document to demonstrate their love of South Sudan. The chapters articulate solutions to the problems.

Take chapter 4, It talks about resource management and economic recovery but if you look at the economic salutation in the country, it is dire and people are really suffering.

We have been waiting for the constitution-making process to start but the bill has gotten stuck in parliament. The many amendments of the constitution have actually mutilated it.

Q: Who particularly is to blame for the lack of political will and delays in the implementation of the agreement?

A: They all came together. So, I think all the parties that constituted the RTGoNU have to share the blame. If things are not going right, what have they said? As citizens, RTGoNU is all of them together so I do not see why we should point fingers at one party. It is all of them that are in RTGONU who is to carry the blame.

Q: Now that the transitional period is soon ending, what is the position of civil society? Are you for an extension?

A: Well, as a citizen and as an individual and according to members of the civil society that have talked with me, we would love to have elections to mark an end to this transition where we move to a democratically elected government. However, elections have benchmarks. There are specific indicators to show anybody if the country can hold elections. The institution of the Elections Commission should stand on its feet. We are looking at the Elections Act this week but the question is when we pass it to parliament, is it going to be moved to the next level?  Right now, parliament is in this situation where one of the parties has pulled out and is not attending sittings. So, the question is; will parliament move without the parties boycotting sittings or not? I think that requires a bit of attention.

If you look at all the drama around the Political Parties Act, the prerequisite for elections is yet to be done. We are yet to put in place things that will lead us to elections.

The country is also having pockets of violence which is very bad. If you look at what happened in Tumbura, Nzara, and the things that are happening in Nimule and all over the country, I think with this situation it is not possible to have an election.

Q: What will civil society do in case the government decides they are going to go ahead with elections and what are you doing to ensure there is a civic space and freedoms before elections?

A: As an individual, I think that we need to put things right before the elections. I do agree that the country needs to have elections but there are a few things that need to be done. If the parties are getting to the table to discuss the things needed to be done for elections to take place, then as citizens, we can talk with them based on that. But if they just announce that there are elections then it will not work. Voters have to be registered by Electoral Commission, but have they equipped it?

Q: You are saying free, fair, and transparent elections cannot be done by the end of the current transitional period?

A: Elections cannot realistically be done within this period and in the current state of affairs. Things must change and the institutions necessary to manage the elections must be present and financially supported.

Q: Are you for the extension of the transitional period?

A: To be honest, we will need elections but the time is not enough with the current situation. Another mistake that the agreement made was to connect the elections with the constitution-making process. We need to rethink that. I see that the country needs to go back to the drawing board and this is where we will be able to chart a way forward. I want to categorically state that the political elite that constitutes the RTGoNU is not going to deliver this country to any better place unless they combine efforts with technocrats and non-political actors.

Q: What is your comment on the representation of women in the implementation of the peace agreement?

A: I will start by quoting former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa who once said; “Honorable Men and women can only be called honorable if they honored their own words in regard to women’s participation.” The agreement talks of 35 percent for affirmative action and yet the women themselves are not able to meet the quota. In a nutshell, I am so disappointed with how they have handled the issues of women’s participation and I think it is time that we as women tell the parties that it is not a favor that you are doing for us.

But also, I would like to draw the attention of women who are in these to the fact that their parties are not appointing more women into positions. They are not able to speak to the leadership of their parties so women are appointed and so they are accomplices who are just being used. It is time we reject that as women. There are so many ways we can contribute to building this nation other than being used by men in political spaces just as a token.

Q: What are the female civil society groups doing to push for more representation of women in governance and politics?

A: The women organizations, I must say, have really tried and they are the biggest champions of the women’s agenda even in the political space. They are the advocates and voices of women who are in these political parties and I must say they are doing an amazing job. However, they must adopt strategies that lead to more women being appointed to positions.

Q: In your opinion, can there be lasting peace and democracy without women’s involvement?

A: I do not think so. Women form a very big percentage of the population in the country and it is just like asking if there can be lasting peace and stability in the country if half of the population is left out. And that includes women and youth. In as much as we have a huge percentage of our population as women, we also have young people as a huge percentage of the population and that includes both genders. The fact that our country is still not paying attention to this category of the population means that we are still far from getting peace, stability, and development. That is why I earlier said that I am convinced that the RTGoNU alone cannot take this country where we want it to be. They need technocrats, non-political actors, and youth and they need women.

Q: What is your message to the people of South Sudan and the political leaders?

A: To the political leaders and the people of South Sudan, the time left for the expiry of the R- ARCSS is very short, and therefore we should already think of what is next for the Republic of South Sudan. Anybody who is a citizen of this country has a responsibility to do their part. So, we better be alert that after the agreement expires, the government will be illegitimate.


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