EU Ambassador to South Sudan, Timo Olkkonen, speaking during a contract signing ceremony with UNHCR in Juba in 2022. (Photo credit EUDSSD)

Q&A: ‘Another extension of government would be disappointing’-EU Ambassador

EU Ambassador to South Sudan Timo Olkkonen says another extension of the transitional government would be disappointing as it signals a failure to fulfill commitments made in the peace agreement and the roadmap.

Timo Olkkonen, the Ambassador of the European Union (EU) to South Sudan, said another extension of the transitional government would be disappointing as it signals a failure to fulfill commitments made in the peace agreement and the roadmap.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Tamazuj, Ambassador Timo emphasized that it is crucial for South Sudanese stakeholders to honour the 2018 peace agreement and find a consensus that ensures peace and democratic transition.

Below are edited excerpts:

Question: Ambassador Timo, could explain the major activities the EU is currently undertaking in South Sudan?

Answer: The EU delegation aims to strengthen relations with South Sudan by promoting peace, stability, and development, aligned with our values of supporting human rights. Our objective is to create a stable, resilient, and peaceful environment in South Sudan, which would also benefit the region.

We work with civil society, government counterparts, and international and regional partners to support the implementation of the peace agreement. One significant initiative is the multi-annual program for South Sudan, running from 2021 to 2027, with an allocation of 208 million Euros for the first three years (2021-2024). This is the first multi-annual development cooperation program between the EU and South Sudan.

Our program focuses on three main priority areas: Green Economy: Supporting agriculture, improving the private sector, increasing access to finance, and managing natural resources. Human Development: Concentrating on health and education to support these critical sectors. Good Governance: Promoting peace and reconciliation, access to justice, accountable and inclusive governance, and human rights.

Additionally, our humanitarian aid is crucial, especially given the situation in Sudan and the influx of returnees. We are supporting their resettlement through various programs. We also maintain political dialogue to further our objectives in South Sudan.

Q: What are some of the main challenges the EU faces in accomplishing these programs?

A: The biggest challenges to development and economic growth in South Sudan are the security situation and the lack of rule of law in many parts of the country. Strengthening institutions for better governance and public fund management is essential for lasting results, but the unstable environment makes it difficult to operate effectively.

For instance, development cooperation initiatives need a secure environment to ensure investments are not undermined by security-related issues. South Sudan is also an expensive place to operate due to factors like numerous checkpoints and poor infrastructure, which increase transportation costs.

Internationally, infrastructure investments are slowing down, not just in the EU but elsewhere. We aim to link the private sector to these investments, but South Sudan’s challenging operational environment hampers private sector involvement and complicates development finance initiatives.

One specific issue is the taxation of humanitarian aid, which has been problematic. We have been very clear that aid entering the country should not be taxed.

Q: According to the latest report by Save the Children, about 3 million children among the refugees who recently returned to South Sudan lack access to education. What is the EU doing to support them?

A: Education is a key focus for us. Since 2011, we have invested significantly in the education sector, with our last investment totalling 230 million Euros. We primarily support primary education for out-of-school children, but we also invest in vocational training and teacher qualification programs to improve the quality of education. We particularly focus on girls’ education, working with other donors. Over the past ten years, more than one million girls have received cash transfers to support their education, and over 250 secondary schools have received grants to enhance their services.

We also collaborate with UNICEF to support education in remote areas by providing incentives for volunteers and certified teachers. This helps address the challenges posed by difficult environments, such as those faced by returnees from Sudan. However, the support from us and other partners cannot substitute for the government’s investment. We are in ongoing discussions with the government, urging them to make more substantial contributions to education.

Q: Does the EU have capacity-building initiatives for government institutions to enable economic growth in South Sudan?

A: Yes, one of our priorities is the green economy. A key tool is the Multi-Donor Trust Fund, led by the World Bank, which focuses on state-building, institutional capacity-building, and creating an environment for inclusive growth. This fund supports the Ministry of Finance and provides a platform for policy dialogue between the South Sudanese government and development partners. We are also involved in institution-building and governance strengthening.

We co-chair initiatives with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, bringing together other ministries to develop and harmonize policy, sector plans, and budgets. While we do not directly fund government initiatives, we provide technical assistance in these areas. Achieving progress requires political will and a long-term vision for reform.

Q: Peace and rule of law are still elusive despite many interventions. Is the EU currently involved in any effort to push for inclusive peace and transitional justice in the country?

A: Governance and peacebuilding are central to our efforts. We support constitution-making, judiciary training through the Max Planck Foundation, and local peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives. We have a budget of about 30 million Euros for these efforts, and we support the South Sudan Reconciliation, Stabilization, and Resilience Trust Fund, which focuses on high-risk areas.

Additionally, we support civil society organizations, NGOs, RJMEC, and CTSAMM. Our support extends to both local and national levels.

Q: Could you shed more light on the level of EU engagement with political parties and the government of South Sudan on the challenges facing the democratic transition in the country?

A: We regularly meet with government entities, often at the ministerial level, particularly the Foreign Ministry. We discuss concerns about political and civic space, the slow implementation of the peace agreement, and specific human rights cases. While we do not support any particular political party, we engage with various parties to understand their views and support the broader political competition and inter-party dialogue.

Q: Is the EU supporting the election process in South Sudan this year? How much funding is involved, and which areas are you supporting in preparation for this process?

A: We are supporting the electoral process by creating preconditions for elections, though not tied to a specific date. We have allocated 12 million Euros, including 3 million through the UNDP basket fund, to support the National Electoral Commission, the Political Parties Council, and civil society. Our support aims to ensure a democratic process regardless of the timing of the elections.

Q: There have been speculations about the implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan. Does the EU think the election will take place this December?

A: We are disappointed with the slow progress in implementing the peace agreement. The 2022 roadmap had specific timelines, but little progress has been made. While it’s not for me to speculate on election dates, the UN Secretary-General’s assessment in April highlighted significant issues. Preconditions for free, fair, and credible elections must be met, and proper preparations are essential.

Q: Ambassador Timo, there is an inter-party dialogue in Juba and peace negotiations in Nairobi, which might lead to another extension of the transitional period. Is the EU in a position to support any extension period in South Sudan?

A: Another extension would be disappointing as it signals a failure to fulfill commitments made in the peace agreement and subsequent roadmaps. It is crucial for South Sudanese stakeholders to honour the peace agreement and find a consensus that ensures peace and democratic transition. The decision to extend the transitional period ultimately lies with the South Sudanese.

Q: How would you rate the civic and political space in South Sudan, and what would the EU like to see before the general election is held?

A: There are significant issues with civic and political space, including extrajudicial arrests and human rights violations. We want to see an open political and civic space as the country moves towards elections. This includes clear regulations and commitments allowing political parties to operate freely and citizens to engage in political debate without fear. Positive developments like the code of conduct for elections must be honoured.

Q: What is your final message to the government and the people of South Sudan?

A: South Sudan has tremendous potential with its vast natural resources and agricultural capacity. However, the country must address security, rule of law, and governance issues to harness these resources for the benefit of its population. I am optimistic about South Sudan’s future, but serious and immediate measures are needed to ensure long-term stability and prosperity.