South Sudan needs genuine commitment to lasting peace – Rajab Mohandis

A key figure in South Sudan’s civil society said the country needs a genuine commitment to lasting peace and stability.

A key figure in South Sudan’s civil society said the country needs a genuine commitment to lasting peace and stability.

In an interview with Radio Tamazuj, Rajab Mohandis, a representative of the civil rights group the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA) at the Nairobi peace talks, shared his insights on the negotiations.

Mohandis, who has a long history of advocating for democracy and human rights in South Sudan, discussed the coalition’s grievances, the challenges facing South Sudan, and the hope for a peaceful resolution that addresses the country’s deep-rooted issues.

The People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA), an umbrella group of government critics in South Sudan, was established on July 30, 2021 and brought together South Sudanese politicians, civil society members, and think-tank leaders. The coalition condemns fundamental issues in South Sudan, such as the lack of basic services, corruption, unemployment, lack of accountability, and abuse of human rights.

Here are edited excerpts:

Question: Rajab, whom are you representing in the Nairobi peace talks?

Answer: I am a delegate of the People’s Coalition for Civil Action, representing the coalition’s membership.

Q: Is this coalition a civil society or a political coalition?

A: Essentially, it is a civil society group, but we are a party also affected by the situation in South Sudan as a coalition.

Q: Does this mean you also have a political aspect?

A: We have grievances that we will bring to the table.

Q: Are you approaching these talks as a civil society or as a political party?

A: We are a civil rights movement. We aim to broadly address the issues affecting the country, while also presenting specific grievances.

Q: Could you share some of these grievances?

A: In July 2021, we issued a declaration stating that the situation in South Sudan was dire. The peace agreement and National Dialogue outcomes were not being implemented, and the country faced the same conditions as when the agreement was signed. We did not see meaningful peace being restored, so we issued that declaration.

The government attempted to arrest us, and some of our colleagues were detained. We were forced into exile, charged by the government, and had our bank accounts, along with those of our organizations, frozen.

This specific concern is one we want to address. However, our main focus remains on the overall situation in South Sudan, where the peace agreement has not been implemented, leading to worsening economic and security conditions. Ordinary people are suffering the most.

When we gained independence, we envisioned South Sudan as a regional economic, political, and military superpower. Instead, we are collapsing on all fronts. Therefore, it is crucial to participate in this process to rescue South Sudan from multiple crises. We also need to address the individual grievances of thousands of citizens who are unlawfully detained and facing crises. This will allow people to rebuild their lives within the system.

Q: As the talks have started, how is the peace process progressing, and have you achieved any of your goals? What are the main discussion points?

A: The broad agenda for these discussions includes governance, security, and the economy. These issues have been laid out by various actors, including political and military groups, civil society, and the government, which has responded to these concerns.

Currently, the mediators have indicated that serious discussions will now focus on these specific issues to reach more concrete resolutions. That’s where we are at this point.

Q: How is the atmosphere? Do you see the government taking these talks seriously, or are there any contentions?

A: So far, we have not seen significant contention. However, the government’s response to the concerns raised by various parties was not substantive and lacked concrete solutions. The government mainly referenced the peace agreement, claiming that all issues are being addressed.

We believe the agreement has not been effective, contributing to the economic and security crises and increasing humanitarian issues. We do not think the ongoing efforts under the current agreement are providing meaningful solutions. The focus of the discussions should address this.

Q: Do you think this is an inclusive peace process, given that some parties claim they were not invited?

A: Initially, all parties, including the RTGoNU and SSOMA members, were involved in the Rome talks. Since moving to Nairobi, the process has become more inclusive, adding actors who were not initially involved. For instance, we in the PCCA were not part of the Rome process but are now participating.

More civil society members have been included, and invitations have been extended to others who might join. Thus, the process has opened up more compared to when it was in Rome.

Q: Do you have hope that Kenya will be the place for peace in South Sudan compared to the previous talks in Rome? What do you see as a civil society participant in this process?

A: I have listened to the Kenyan mediation team and the president, and I sense a strong commitment. We raised several concerns with the Kenyan mediation team three months ago, emphasizing the need for inclusivity, addressing security issues, and focusing on core issues affecting the country rather than just political positions.

We also highlighted the need to understand why previous peace agreements, including the R-ARCSS, have not resolved the crises in South Sudan. The responses from the Kenyan mediation team, led by General Lazarus, and President William Ruto’s involvement give us some confidence in the mediation process.

However, our main concern is with the South Sudanese participants in the mediation. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the crises in the country, particularly from the government, and a focus on addressing these issues meaningfully.

We trust the seriousness of the Kenyan mediation and the Kenyan president. Many of the issues we raised are being considered, and we believe this platform offers a crucial opportunity for South Sudanese to find meaningful solutions to end the cycle of negotiations and agreements without real progress.

Q: If the process goes as you hope, would you return to South Sudan?

A: Yes, we are South Sudanese, and South Sudan is our only home. We will return if peace is restored in a way that ensures safety for all citizens. We are currently outside the country against our will due to the lack of peace and ongoing human rights violations.

Many people in my own state, Western Equatoria, and other parts of the country have suffered due to conflicts. We hope this negotiation will address these issues broadly, making South Sudan safe for all its citizens, including those displaced and in refugee camps, so they can return and rebuild their lives.

Q: If this round of negotiations succeeds and you sign a deal, what difference will it make, given that previous agreements with Dr. Riek Machar, Johnson Olony, and Dr. Lam Akol have not been fully implemented, and they have been restricted from leaving Juba?

A: These issues will be addressed during the discussions. We need to see changes in the status of those individuals who, after signing agreements, were not allowed to leave Juba. There must be concrete changes to convince us that this time will be different.

The focus should be on issues that caused previous agreements to fail. If we don’t learn from past agreements to make meaningful changes, there is no point in striking a deal in Nairobi. No one wants to see the country remain in the same situation. We must ensure that citizens’ rights are upheld, including the freedom to leave the country and exercise fundamental freedoms. These are crucial elements of our conversations.

As PCCA, we are participating not to pursue political power but to address the concerns we raised in 2021 meaningfully. We are committed to this process, especially if we see these issues being handled critically.

If these issues are not addressed, we will inform the people of South Sudan, the region, and the world that the parties involved are not serious about resolving the country’s core issues. The government initiated this process, and we want to see a genuine commitment from them towards lasting solutions. If that doesn’t happen, we will expose any dishonesty in this process.

We are here to see if there is a genuine commitment, especially from the government, to deliver peace for South Sudan.

Q: There has been significant media interest during the launch of these talks, and South Sudanese are eager to know what is happening. How do you view the media’s presence during this process?

A: I know that Miraya FM is here at the venue. They have not been allowed into the mediation room, which is a decision by the mediation team. However, Miraya FM continues to engage with participants and delegates involved in the process.

Q: Do you think it is a good idea for the mediation to restrict media access?

A: In past peace processes, media are typically restricted from direct participation or from being in the mediation room. They usually stay outside and interact with delegates because the discussions inside are not final and need to be kept confidential until agreements are reached and messages are communicated.

Q: Do you have any final messages for the people of South Sudan?

A: The people of South Sudan should recognize that our country is still in crisis. Kenya has supported South Sudan before, mediating the peace process that led to the CPA and eventually to our independence. We can leverage Kenya’s experience and connections.

We need to work with Kenyan leadership and push all parties, especially the political actors and the current government, to work in good faith to restore peace in our country. This peace must reach every village, internally displaced person, and refugee camp. Like the CPA, a meaningful agreement should enable people to return home.

These conversations are crucial. The people of South Sudan must engage in such dialogues with the country’s best interests at heart.