South Sudan’s decade-long transition: A country in search of a permanent constitution

By Zach Nelson

Zach Nelson is a first-year graduate student studying International Development at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was previously based in Juba, South Sudan, where he led research assessments on humanitarian accountability, and in Yangon, Myanmar, where he worked on conflict risk-monitoring.

A reveler celebrates in Juba the eve of South Sudan’s independence on 9 July 2011. Ten years later, his country remains without a permanent constitution.” Credit: Creative Commons  

In September 2018, South Sudan’s major warring parties signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), bringing five years of brutal civil war to a close. February 2021 marks one year since the establishment of the Revitalized Transnational Government of National Unity (RTGoNU). The formation of the RTGoNU was hailed as a major achievement because it indicated that the implementation of the R-ARCSS was succeeding.

However, a year after the formation of the RTGoNU and nearly a decade since becoming the world’s youngest country, South Sudan remains in dire straits. The country is in the throes of a protracted humanitarian crisis,[1]subnational conflict has ticked up and chances of a political settlement appear dim.

President Salva Kiir and first Vice President Riek Machar—the two main belligerents of the country’s brutal civil war—maintain a delicate peace. However, continued quarrelling over power-sharing arrangements and decentralization of authority threaten to derail the fragile progress that has been made. 

Many of these disagreements between Kiir, Machar and other aggrieved parties can be traced to the fact that South Sudan is a country without an official constitution. A series of transitional constitutions, coupled with weak rule of law, has inhibited the ability of the South Sudanese leadership to deliver services, craft a national identity and maintain harmony between its 64-recognized ethnic groups. South Sudan faces potentially destabilizing national elections as early as 2022, in what some observers are calling a “final showdown”between Kiir and Machar. To forge a durable political settlement and prevent further violence, space must be created for constructive dialogue to reassess critical constitutional provisions.

As starkly articulated in the International Crisis Group’s (ICG’s) February 2021 country report: “South Sudan—the world’s newest country—needs a reset, if not a redo.” Part of this process should be crafting a permanent constitution. 

Key Constitutional Issues

The architecture of government and decision-making is currently set out in the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan (TCSS). Initially conceived to be a temporary governing document at the time of South Sudan’s July 2011 independence, the TCSS is riddled with provisions that concentrate power in the executive, thus limiting consensus-building between the heavily-armed ethno-political blocs of the Dinka (President Kiir’s ethnic group and the nation’s largest), the Nuer (Machar’s bloc and the country’s second largest ethnic community) and the Equatorians, a scattered grouping of ethnicities along the southern border. 

Constitution-making in South Sudan has been exclusive and identarian 

South Sudan’s first governing document, the Interim Constitution of South Sudan (ICSS) was the outgrowth of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that marked the end of the 25-year civil war between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, represented by an austere commander named John Garang, who was at the helm of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).[2] The ICSS was drafted by signatories entirely without popular participation. The lack of citizen engagement was justified on the grounds that the ICSS was first concerned with stopping armed conflict, and then with fashioning a state.  

The ICSS set a precedent for a constitutional process that was exclusive and opaque. At the time of independence, concerned with securing his own power base, newly-minted President Kiir commissioned a constitutional review committee, through which the TCSS was established. This committee was stacked with elites directly affiliated with his political apparatus. The President’s appointment of a handful of opposition officials and civilian representatives to the committee was a weak attempt at popular participation, derided as feckless and performative. 

While the majority of provisions in the TCSS mirrored the ICSS, key alterations were the result of an exclusive, opaque process; veering South Sudan away from a consociationalist federal arrangement and vesting extraordinary power in the office of the executive.

The TCSS concentrates power in the hands of the executive

Three clauses in the TCSS have concentrated power in the center and have resulted in a presidency that controls the content of constitution-making while insulating itself from accountability for its actions.

Derivation of Authority (Article 3(2))

“The authority of the government at all levels shall derive from this Constitution and the law” Article 3 (2)

Traditional federal constitutions derive their authority from the will of the people, rather than the letter of the law. As discussed, the credibility of the TCSS, was suspect from its inception: lacking popular participation and not reflective of the norms, needs and desires of the South Sudanese people.

Extraordinary executive authority (Article 101)

“The President shall perform the following functions: “supervise constitutional institutions…initiative constitutional amendments and legislation…remove a state Governor and/or dissolve a state legislative assembly in the event of a crisis in the state.”

Article 101, which enumerates the responsibilities of the office of the President, created a king-like executive in South Sudan. President Kiir has interpreted these provisions as being without limit. For instance, only eighteen months after independence, he summarily dismissed the governors of both Lakes and Unity State. This act was wantonly unconstitutional and motivated by the governors’ perceived comradeship with VP Riek Machar. President Kiir has consistently exercised these provisions without due process.

In the run-up to the 2013 civil war, Machar publicly announced his intention to challenge Kiir in the 2015 federal elections. Harnessing his constitutional powers, Kiir worked to eviscerate Machar’s power base. In what many observers credit with the single act that most contributed to the start of conflict, in July 2013 Kiir stripped Machar of the vice presidency and dismissed all the ministers and deputy ministers of his cabinet. The civil war would erupt less than five months later.

Kiir retains unitary constitutional authority to strip any official of his or her role and can declare a state of emergency in defense of the “national interest.”

Non-democratic secession process (Article 102 (2))

“If the office of the President falls vacant, the post shall be assumed by the Vice President pending elections that shall be conducted by the National Elections Commission within sixty days of the vacancy.” Article 102 (2)

There is little doubt that VP Machar is interested in Kiir’s job. The fact that the VP does not automatically become president and that the National Elections Commission controls the reelection process, is a brazen mandate directed by the Presidency to ensure that makes it very difficult for Machar to assume the top post. 

Indeed, this clause underscores the wider instrumentalization of the ethnic security dilemma that persists in the country today. Factions locked out of power have few incentives to believe their access to decision-making structures are legally backstopped by constitutional provisions. They feel pressured to take up arms in order to secure their own sense of safety and well-being. This then leads to a brutal feedback loop of conflict that has played out with alarming regularity in post-independence South Sudan.

The Path Forward

While it is debatable whether constitutional issues were the sparks that catalyzed the South Sudanese Civil War, they certainly contributed to maintaining violence and restricting opportunities for successful resolutions. 

In order to ensure a peaceful transition and build constitutional resilience to shocks, South Sudan needs a permanent constitution. The TCSS was always considered a placeholder document; conceived as a constitution for a “nation-in-waiting” until a more robust constitutional process could occur after the predicted independence referendum. 

The new constitution must incorporate provisions that constrain the power of the executive, mandate the separation of powers and harness South Sudan’s diversity in a way that decentralizes decision-making and builds a culture of inclusivity.

Ensuring an open and participatory process is key: representative participation ensures durability and confers legitimacy. South Sudan’s permanent constitution must afford citizens the opportunity to fashion the constitution in their own image. There is a hearty appetite for this across all strata of South Sudanese society. A key indication of the centrality of constitutional issues is the fact that constitutional reform is a foundational pillar of the R-ARCSS—namely, the formation of a National Constitutional Review Committee which is tasked with triggering the process of building a permanent constitution. As of the time of writing, the constitutional committee has been appointed, but is currently inactive.

The primacy of power sharing. South Sudan’s winner-take-all electoral system offers few avenues for the inclusion of rivals. To prevent electoral losers from taking up arms, the position of the first vice-presidency could be reserved for the presidential runner-up with at least one other vice-presidency designated to the third most successful candidate (under the RTGoNU, there are five vice presidential positions). Furthermore, while decentralization is articulated in the TCCS, it has hardly been implemented since independence. Devolving power and decision-making to the regional and local levels creates buy-in and empowers local officials. 

Look to regional partners for successful ‘diversity management’ mechanisms . One option could be a home-grown ‘house of nationalities’, as in neighboring Ethiopia (although the current Tigray conflict calls the effect of such a system into question), whereby one representative from each of South Sudan’s 64 recognized ethnic groups would be elected to the lower house of parliament. This would have the dual effect of mitigating majority dominance and creating a platform where all ethnic groups have an equal stake, perhaps fostering an environment for the forging of a national identity. Another option could be rotating the presidency and top cabinet positions between ethnicities every election cycle.

Overall, the drafters should promote broad-based accommodation, balancing integrative design with an executive tempered by strong liberal institutions. Such a process will necessarily require compromise between South Sudan’s power-brokers, who at the moment, remain mostly opposed. Thus, creating space for substantive dialogue on constitutional reform must be a key priority, underscored by inclusive, local participation. 

[1] With 400,000 dead since the outbreak of fighting in 2013, four million people displaced and nearly half the population (5.8 million) in a state of acute food insecurity (UN OCHA South Sudan Humanitarian Needs Overview 2020)

[2] The SPLA represents the movement’s armed wing, while the SPLM is the movement’s political wing.

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