The United States played a key role in the emergence of South Sudan as an independent state 10 years ago. Yet today, U.S. policy toward the country is insufficient to address the continued violence or promote sustainable peace. Even so, it is not too late for U.S. policymakers to embark upon a renewed push for peace. To move forward, they should listen to what South Sudan’s people said in the recently concluded National Dialogue and incorporate its recommendations in diplomatic, humanitarian and development strategies for the country.

South Sudanese cheer and wave flags as they celebrate their nation's independence in Juba, South Sudan, July 9, 2011. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
South Sudanese cheer and wave flags as they celebrate their nation's independence in Juba, South Sudan, July 9, 2011. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

President Salva Kiir convened the South Sudan National Dialogue in December of 2016, stating that its goal was to “end all violent conflicts in South Sudan, constitute national consensus, and save the country from disintegration and foreign interference.” South Sudan was facing a crisis at the time. A previous peace agreement had all but collapsed when violence broke out between government and opposition forces in Juba in July of 2016, spreading to previously stable parts of the country.

From the start, the National Dialogue was a rocky process. Armed opposition groups, including the main one led by current First Vice President Dr. Riek Machar, were skeptical of the government’s commitment to dialogue and refused to participate. Their boycott and the ongoing fighting made opposition-controlled areas difficult to reach. Other armed opposition groups also declined to participate.

Some argued it was impossible to hold a national dialogue under conditions that included a humanitarian crisis, mass displacement, expanding civil war and reprisals against people who criticized the authorities. Others said the process would only distract from the regionally led peace talks then underway in Ethiopia.

As a result, the dialogue faced criticism for failing to include enough of the political opposition and leaving rural populations, often inaccessible by roads, excluded. There were also allegations that at least some delegate selection was subject to political interference.

Eventually, changes to the dialogue’s structure, including the removal of the president as patron and restructuring of its membership, brought in more participants. Nevertheless, the international community and much of the South Sudanese public remain critical.

Candid Criticisms

In the end, the National Dialogue — despite its flaws — surprised many observers with the reach of its consultations and the participants’ candid criticisms.

Over a period of almost four years, the dialogue held more than 200 grassroots meetings, three regional conferences comprised of 300 to 400 delegates each, and meetings with more than 1,200 refugees and diaspora in neighboring countries.

It concluded in November 2020 with a national conference that brought together more than 520 delegates from each of South Sudan’s 79 counties and Abyei Area, a contested border area between Sudan and South Sudan.

In total, more than 20,000 South Sudanese participated in the dialogue, a level of civic engagement that far exceeds other national political consultations undertaken in the country.

The process brought forth a broad, remarkably candid critique of South Sudan’s political condition and introduced proposals for its improvement. Resolutions from the dialogue address areas including politics, the military, state formation, resource sharing, violence, elections and reconciliation. South Sudanese spoke clearly about the failure of leadership and dysfunctional institutions. They took stock of rampant corruption, the incitement of hate speech and ethnic violence, and impunity for human rights violations. A consensus also emerged on the adoption of a federal system of government and presidential term limits.

Ordinary citizens even called for political leaders, including Kiir and Machar, to step down or agree not to contest elections currently scheduled for 2023.

As David Shearer, then special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in South Sudan, noted during the national conference in November 2020, grassroots participants in the dialogue ranged from community leaders to farmers, women, youth and religious leaders.

“It really has given people across the country the chance to have an opinion and their voice heard in order to be able to shape the future of South Sudan,” Shearer said.

Who’s Listening?

Although lacking the hoped-for inclusivity, the dialogue’s results remain a credible reflection of South Sudanese thinking. Thousands of people stood up in difficult conditions so that their voices could be heard.

The question is, are policymakers — in the United States and international community — listening?

With the conclusion of the national conference, the National Dialogue has reached a key milestone. During his speech at the closing ceremony of the conference, Kiir took issue with several of the resolutions, including the notion that the leadership of his political party is to blame for the crisis that has engulfed the country.

Kiir also argued that the National Dialogue could not override the terms of the 2018 peace agreement. Although it’s true that the 2018 deal carries an important authority and a bulk of international support for its implementation, the National Dialogue’s resolutions, drawn from citizens impacted by violence in their everyday lives, have a legitimacy that the peace agreement lacks. Even Kiir said at the conference that the dialogue “represents the views of the broad cross-section of our society” and that “there is no question about the legitimacy of this process.”

Taken together, the top-down, elite-involved 2018 agreement and the bottom-up, civilian-involved resolutions of the dialogue offer a unique opportunity to harmonize legitimacy with the power to implement change.

As of yet, Kiir has not accepted the National Dialogue’s resolutions. Most tellingly, perhaps, his surrogates contend the dialogue has no legal basis to ask current leaders to leave politics and echo Kiir on the supremacy of the 2018 agreement. Machar and other opposition groups also remain steadfast in their disapproval of the process.

So, the question remains: Will the resolutions be implemented or will they be left to gather dust like so many other government initiatives?

What Can U.S. Policymakers Do?

Despite its political complexity, the current situation offers a number of opportunities and lessons for U.S. policymakers. To strengthen their efforts to bring stability and security to South Sudan — and by extension the broader region — U.S. policymakers should:

  • Conduct an in-depth review of the National Dialogue resolutions to incorporate them into U.S. government policies and strategies.
  • Offer diplomatic and political support to explore ways the resolutions of National Dialogue and the implementation of the 2018 peace agreement complement each other.
  • Provide political and financial support to enhance and expand citizen-informed and-led policymaking in South Sudan and involve diverse populations and civil society.
  • Increase financial and technical support to enlarge the capacity of civil society to safeguard, collate, disseminate and advance the implementation of the National Dialogue’s resolutions.

The results of the National Dialogue offer one set of answers to questions that U.S. policymakers have grappled with in addressing the root causes of South Sudan’s violence, weak governance and lack of justice. The United States would be remiss to ignore the product of this remarkable process.

David Deng is a South Sudanese-American human rights lawyer and researcher, and the author of “Compound fractures: political formations, armed groups and regional mediation in South Sudan.”

For more on the National Dialogue, watch this webinar convened by the South Sudan Civil Society Forum with USIP support. The webinar was part of a broader study conducted by Detcro, a South Sudanese research and advisory firm, in collaboration with USIP.

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