As South Sudanese leaders are set to participate in another series of talks in the coming months, their citizens continue to flee the violence, lawlessness and humanitarian disaster that characterises their country. From refugee settlements in Uganda and elsewhere in the region, they follow these discussions with a mix of scepticism, hope and rejection. Most have lost faith in the willingness of their politicians to find a solution to their situation at the negotiation table. As a refugee leader in Uganda’s Adjumani district told IRRI: “Such dialogues have been done many times. They are spoiling a lot of money, but I don’t see any results.”
Multiple initiatives are currently being undertaken to reinvigorate the stalled peace process. The regional body, IGAD, is convening, with support of Western donors, a high-level revitalisation forum to re-discuss the failed implementation of a 2015 agreement it mediated between the warring parties. At the same time, Uganda is organising a discussion to heal the rifts within the SPLM, the politico-military movement that came to power following the country’s independence in 2011 and subsequently fragmented when fighting broke out between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar in December 2013. And within the country, a National Dialogue process is being held, previously co-chaired by President Kiir, with consultations taking place across the country and in key sites outside, such as in Uganda and Ethiopia.
It was a consultation meeting held by facilitators of this National Dialogue in Adjumani, a town in northern Uganda surrounded by refugee settlements that has demonstrated how controversial this initiative is. Several refugee representatives said it was only a superficial consultation process and that the delegation was not interested in what the refugee delegates had to say. They feared that the views they expressed – that the current leadership has failed to provide any meaningful solution to the crisis and has continued to prioritise weapons and power over dialogue and their citizens’ rights – would not be taken into account or – worse – would bring them problems.
At the same time, they found it important to engage with the process and also to challenge the delegation’s, somewhat optimistic, message that there is peace in South Sudan. Several also complained to IRRI that the consultation was not inclusive enough and only a few of them were able to voice their grievances to the delegation. “They should have discussed with the majority of us, not just with a few handpicked leaders,” one of the participants told IRRI.
A meaningful national dialogue is impossible when participants are not able to express themselves free of threats, discrimination and violence. This is especially the case inside South Sudan, where violence, repression and banditry continue to ravage the country. But even in Uganda, this is becoming increasingly difficult. In one of its refugee settlements this was exemplified when IRRI had to reassure suspicious refugee leaders that it has no links to the South Sudanese government, before they agreed to sit down and discuss. This is not unsurprising given the continued fear of presence of South Sudanese armed actors in the refugee settlements in Uganda.
Such fears were reinforced after the killing of a South Sudanese Member of Parliament who was a member of the National Dialogue consultation team, on 6 December in Uganda’s Yumbe district. This is not the first such incident on Ugandan soil, and the quick succession of deadly events in the last months are creating increasing concern of the risk of spill-over of the violence in South Sudan to Uganda.
To avert this spill over from happening, Uganda and other regional actors must ensure that the new initiatives to bring South Sudanese parties around the table embody some minimal conditions for success, including:
- civilian and military inclusivity,
- concrete agendas,
- effective coordination,
- real mechanisms for implementation and follow-up,
- accountability for spoilers and
- the mitigation of regional egos.
Such conditions are necessary to convince displaced South Sudanese that these initiatives are more than mere efforts by the regional actors to show that they are “at least doing something.” Or as a refugee representative put it: “They continue to talk, but it bears no fruit. We want to eat the fruits of those talks, but they don’t water them.”