William Flens, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires, ad interim (CDA, a.i.) in South Sudan [Photo: US Embassy]

Interview: ‘Redouble efforts to implement peace deal, conduct elections’ -U.S. Chargé d’Affaires

The U.S. acting head of mission in South Sudan William Flens says South Sudan leaders must show a sense of urgency and redouble their efforts to ensure the remaining tasks in the peace agreement have been implemented before the end of the transitional period.

The U.S. acting head of mission in South Sudan William Flens says South Sudan leaders must show a sense of urgency and redouble their efforts to ensure the remaining tasks in the peace agreement have been implemented before the end of the transitional period. 

Radio Tamazuj caught up with him and discussed a broad range of issues.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: Mr. William Flens, you are welcome to Radio Tamazuj and tell us some of the activities the US government is doing in South Sudan.

A: Thank you for the question. The United States remains committed to a peaceful, democratic and stable South Sudan and we are continuing to encourage all the South Sudanese people and our regional partners to help us work towards our vision. It’s difficult for people to see how there can be peace in the country when there are so many pockets of violence, so much instability and basic needs that are not being met. That’s why the US has spent much of its efforts and funding to support humanitarian assistance to the people of South Sudan, that in a way is also supporting the peace process. There are people who cannot have their basic needs and people will always be competing over resources. You probably know that the United States is the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the people of South Sudan with contributions averaging one billion US dollars a year and that includes assistance for food, nutrition, safe drinking water, health services, education, relief supplies and also services for those victims of violence. So we are trying to address those basic needs and that effort of providing humanitarian assistance has been made more challenging, especially in light of Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine which has resulted in massive price spikes, has disrupted global energy markets, and has made things much more difficult for the people of South Sudan who have been struggling already for some time. Our efforts also stand to support the United Nations Mission in South Sudan which carries out critical peacekeeping operations in some of the most unstable parts of the country and we are supporting that to the tune of some 300 million dollars a year so it’s a substantial part of how we see the importance of the UN work here and we want to support them in those efforts.

Q: Of late we have seen that the US has scaled down the funds for the peace mechanism in South Sudan. Don’t you think that this step could jeopardize the implementation of the peace agreement?

A: As you know that we have suspended funding for the two security monitoring mechanisms; the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism-CTSAMVM and the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission otherwise known as R-JMEC. So we have been honored to provide support to both of those mechanisms since their inceptions and we funded them almost 145 million USD in funding since the beginning but what we have seen is that we have seen nothing but multiple repeated delays by the leadership of South Sudan in implementing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan R-ARCSS and that has raised a lot of concerns within my government about the political will of the leadership of South Sudan to implement the peace agreement and to deliver the aspirations of the people of South Sudan. So we are calling again on the government to redouble its efforts to show a sense of urgency to complete the implementation of the peace agreement that does not mean we are spilling back our support for the peace process I want to make that clear. I’ve seen that reported in recent days and that is a misconception of what our actual situation is. Even when we are scaling back support for these two mechanisms, we are not scaling back support for the peace process.

Q. Saying the government should redouble its efforts, does that mean the US is disappointed with the government of South Sudan?

A: I think is not just the US and others I think it’s the people of South Sudan frankly who are disappointed in the failure to advance the peace process. It should be much further along by now, many of their promised reform commitments have not been implemented, and that’s why we are where we are. With less than seven months remaining in the transitional period and many uncompleted actions have remained so we speak to the people of South Sudan, we hear their voices and it’s clear that they have the same concerns about the lack of implementation.

Q: What were the United States’ expectations of South Sudan before independence and have your views changed after the conflict happened in 2013?

A: I was not covering South Sudan at the time but from what I can tell you is that the early days of this country were a time of hope and promise that the leadership here would start a new phase to deliver on the aspirations of the people of South Sudan who struggled for so many years to get their independence and we the United States was a partner and we remain a partner in that effort. But it’s been disappointing though, to be frank about how we have not seen the level of implementation and commitment by the leaders of the country and that’s something we continue to press them on that. It’s not too late but they have to turn this around people, are losing hope, and its incumbent upon the leadership to show that there is still a chance to get this right and we are here to support them but we cannot want it more than the leaders of the country do. It takes political will to make these changes and we as a friend, a long-term friend of South Sudan who helped this country gain its independence, have invested a lot and we want to see South Sudan succeed but it takes political leadership to make that happen.

Q: As you know we are about eight months down to the elections in South Sudan, what is the role of the United States to ensure that South Sudan holds elections, and do you think that it will be before the end of the transitional period next year?

A: We understand that the government is developing the roadmap for the remainder of the transitional period up to the elections and that roadmap will contain benchmarks that will be crucial to ensuring that the preconditions are made and it should also be a very inclusive and consultative process by which various stakeholders are able to express their opinions on this. So, we are waiting to see that and we want to also be assured that this has the buy-in and support of the people of South Sudan. It cannot be a one-sided roadmap that’s upon the other stakeholders it has to be consultative and that is going to be a key determining factor in how legitimate that roadmap will be and we are going to be watching and waiting to see how that develops.

Q: A lot of political parties, civil societies, and the media complain about the lack of civic space and lack of freedom of speech and press. What is the US doing to ensure that there are freedoms in South Sudan before this election because we are going to a very critical time?

A: You are absolutely right and that’s something we prioritize in our engagements with the government to press them to ease up to create more civic space for the population because the pressures will only mount as that election date whenever that happens draws near and we are supporting civil society groups, we are supporting journalists to help them in their reporting. But ultimately, it’s going to take the government to be willing to allow that dialogue, that debate to foster true discussion about the future of this country, and the support we provide to those civil society groups and to journalists is something that we are proud of because it’s something we hope will be a tool for them to use to create to try open more of that civic space and demand more from their government.

Q: Many political analysts think that the parties to the peace agreement will eventually extend the transitional period after its end. Does the US support any further extension of the transitional period?

A: That would be a question that I think the government would have to answer to its own people first and foremost as to why they think an extension of the transitional period is justifiable as you know there have been other extensions in the past and we are still much behind schedule and there’s a lot that remains to be done so I guess the question that one would have to ask is that what will be different about the extension this time and that is something I will just leave it out there for others to address. But it’s something we are looking at and I think it’s a very valid question in light of what we have seen is already developed to this point.

Q: The observers believe that the targeted sanctions and the arms embargo imposed on South Sudan failed to bear fruits, what other tools does the US have to ensure democratic transformation happens in the country?

A: Sanctions obviously are one tool that we rather not had to use but given the lack of follow-through and accountability, that is certainly one of the tools we will continue to rely on to demand accountability. We are working on various other mechanisms in particular through the public financial management oversight committee of which we are part and hoping to build awareness at that level for more responsive, more accountable management of this country’s revenues streams so that there can be more transparency, more accountability for all to see and that’s another way we are helping to build that accountability for all to see and that is another way we are helping to build that accountability we are pressing the government to take the necessary steps to open its books to show exactly where the money is going and if that reveals that there has been mismanagement that will be something upon the government to follow up and to hold accountable those who have been mismanaging the country’s finances. But we are continuing to push for accountability at various levels.

Q:  As you are pushing for this accountability there are questions arising why is the US Embassy or the US government not investing in the oil production in the country because this is where most of the corruption is happening?

A: That’s something we hope we can see in the future, some more US direct investments here in South Sudan but frankly it’s difficult for me to encourage US companies to come and invest in South Sudan when there is a lack of basic response oversight, the lack of protections for investment here but the last thing we want to do is to have a US company come in, set up operations and then not be successful to problems of corruption problems of mismanagement and that’s something we are telling our companies to be mindful of. We are not saying that they cannot come but we want them to be very cautious and aware of the challenges that they face and we are hopeful that South Sudan can improve its investment climate so that in the future we can welcome these companies and give them the assurance that there is rule of law here and their investments will be protected and that will be a very positive development if we can reach that day but at the moment it’s difficult for me to say that with confidence that a US investor will have their investments protected to the extent that it must be in order to assure that they would be successful here.

Q: The US Embassy is known to have been helping in terms of humanitarian and education, food, and security in South Sudan but the question is, what is the long-term sustainability plan for self-reliance? 

A: You asked a very excellent question, but I would say that this is not a question for us to answer, this is a question for the government of South Sudan to address. You are right we are providing food assistance to a large segment of this population, three-quarters of which a population of 12 million people is food insecure. This is not a sustainable situation we would like to direct our efforts towards more development but frankly, when you have as many people at risk of starvation as those who are here, the priority has to be to save lives. But I go back to the question of the government and what are they doing to help transition away from humanitarian donor assistance to more self-reliant. We are willing to have those conversations but the government has to start providing levels of basic services to its people that’s the challenge and that is something we are looking for the government to help address.

Q: What is your message specifically to the leaders in South Sudan given the fact that the graduation of the forces has been delayed, we have so many bills delayed in the parliament as well. What would be your message to these political leaders and the civilians at the same time?

A: My message to them would be to show more urgency in implementing these remaining tasks for there to be successful completion of the transitional period. A lot of this is in the government’s control and that’s why it’s not the time to be saying that we can’t do it it’s a time to double down, to come together to put aside differences as a transitional government and work to complete these tasks. There are several things, several bills pending that require the leadership, the president, and the first vice president to sit down and actually iron out some of these differences over the national security bill, over the political parties’ act, and this is something that we can’t do. This is something that can only happen among the leaders of this country. So that is something that they owe not to the outside donor this is something that they owe to the people of South Sudan. People are expecting the leadership to come together to resolve their difference and this is my message to them I think that would be the same message from the people of South Sudan to their leaders as well.