As I write this piece, it is early December 2023. We are at the cusp of 2024, a year that promises to be massively transformational and exciting for South Sudan. At a time like this next year, just 12 months down the line from now, we shall be on the brink of making history, holding the first-ever National Elections this nation has ever had—a major milestone in our democracy.
Given the gravity and momentous nature of these elections, I have no doubt that all eyes shall squarely be on our electoral process. From the East to the West, all nations will be observing anticipatedly to see just how we handle these elections, especially considering South Sudan’s chequered history with conflict and war. Will we miss the mark, or will this be another unfortunate display of violence? Personally, I am very hopeful that we shall show the world, and ourselves, that we are well capable of holding peaceful and democratic elections, and part of this optimism stems from my faith in the National Communication Authority (NCA) and its leadership under Director General, Eng. Napoleon Adok.
Let me make this disclaimer though— I am by no means an expert on public affairs or the electioneering process. Not at all. I am simply a patriot and responsible citizen of this beautiful country who is cognisant of my contribution when it comes to understanding the ongoings in our nation’s critical sectors. This is why I have been closely following the events leading up to our first National Elections.
Now, back to NCA; I started keenly following the activities of the NCA in particular when a friend invited me to one of its public town hall meetings held at Palm Africa Hotel in 2022, and I have made quite a number of observations since then, which I would like to share with you all.
What is the NCA?
Before I delve any further, it is critical to first understand what the NCA is. As the name implies, the National Communication Authority is South Sudan’s ICT and Telecommunications regulatory authority whose main function is to regulate all communications in the country to enable socio-economic development for the benefit of South Sudan. As part of this role, the NCA enforces the government’s policies in the area of communication, and controls, inspects, and supervises all communication activities in the Republic of South Sudan.
Transformations in the NCA
In recent years, the NCA has been making notable strides in its mandate, guided by its vision of “Connecting South Sudan” digitally to be at par globally in bettering government delivery and management of services. The brainchild behind this ‘connecting South Sudan’ initiative is Eng. Napoleon Adok, the Director General of NCA. He took the helm of NCA in 2020 and ever since, he has steadily steered the Authority towards a path of innovation. It has been encouraging to see Eng. Adok guiding the institution towards claiming its rightful position in the national and global arena. Particularly noteworthy has been the ‘Rural Connectivity’ project, which has yielded significant fruits like the opening of various network towers in remote areas across the country such as in Rejong, Terekeka County – Central Equatoria State, Boma County – Pibor Administrative Area and Anuol, Yirol West County of Lakes State. In addition, NCA, together with its partners has restored connectivity in areas whose network connectivity was affected in 2013 such as Nyal in Unity State and Tambura in Western Equatoria State.
A major achievement has been the revitalisation of partnerships with international organizations such as the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the East African Communications Organisation (EACO), regional communication authorities such as the communications authorities of Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, and the local Mobile Network Operators. This has made South Sudan a proactive participant, seen as able and capable of identifying issues and suggesting solutions in technology.
What I have especially been excited to witness are the moves NCA has made with respect to digital literacy as part of its efforts to provide a safer online experience. For the longest time, social media in the country was awash with hate speech and ‘fake news.’ Through its South Sudan Computer Incident Response Team, however, cybercrimes, misinformation, and hate speech have reduced significantly. In addition, conducting a series of stakeholder town halls and its partnership with DefyHateNow, SafetyComm, and 211 Check has also helped to curb hate speech and misinformation and increased digital literacy amongst South Sudanese on social media.
It is exciting to see progress being made with our country’s communications infrastructure, thanks to the NCA. As someone who lived in Kenya for quite a while, I can admit that Kenya’s communication infrastructure is far ahead of South Sudan’s. There is a good reason for this though– we are a young nation that was plunged into war almost immediately after independence thereby setting back any progress that was there and halting further developments. Thankfully, in this post-conflict reconstruction period, tutelage of the NCA has been given to a gifted technocrat, Director General Eng. Napoleon Adok, who has transformed the Communications Authority and put in effect the “leapfrogging” concept.
Despite the progress we have seen so far, South Sudan is technologically behind most countries due to decades of war and the relative newness of our nation. We grapple with inadequate infrastructure, a lack of capacity, and limited capital. South Sudan also remains to be a volatile place, vulnerable to armed-related scenes. South Sudan is already vulnerable to a set of cybercrimes. Several individuals in the country, including top government officials, and business people, among others, are scammed and impersonated online. Obscene videos and soft porn are being circulated. There are also security breaches where sensitive government documents are openly shared through social media platforms. The problem is worrying and cybercrime cases are expected to worsen with a plan to increase connectivity to the entire country. While South Sudan has crafted cybercriminal laws, these have yet to be fully implemented.
Lastly, one issue that I must also point out is the difficulty of accessing accurate data about NCA and I had to rely on social media information when trying to find out more about the authority’s progress. This needs to be improved and the authority’s website should be regularly updated and maintained to ensure easy access to information. I am confident that with Director General Eng. Adok’s competence and his track record at the authority so far, this shall be achieved.
What the NCA needs to do to contribute to a peaceful preparation process
Of urgent importance is for NCA to prepare for likely cases of incitement, misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and security incidents in the build-up to the 2024 elections. This should be done with immediate effect to prevent the stirring up of hate, which will make the country vulnerable to internal conflict, something we cannot afford to allow given our conflict-riddled history. While regulating access, however, NCA has to recognise the rights of the people to share their ideas and opinions, and for press freedom within the parameters of freedoms afforded by the governing laws of the Republic of South Sudan.
Access to technology will be critical in facilitating seamless and peaceful elections through uninterrupted access to information. Localisation of internet infrastructure will also help to enhance speed and reliability and additionally reduce costs incurred by the users. For example, the creation of hotspots that allow the general population to access affordable internet. Further, South Sudan needs to urgently prioritise the improvement of ICT operations and usage across the relevant government institutions and departments. This would be a relatively easy task to execute. There is a depth of talent among young South Sudanese people who can competently establish a primary computer network in the relevant government ministries and institutions, which are without proper systems. Therefore, the election budget should allocate funds towards this initiative across the relevant departments and institutions, rehabilitating communication and enhancing connectivity.
Election hotlines should also be created to facilitate communication between voters and the electoral commission. NCA should consider collaborating with MNOs (mobile network operators) to facilitate this. In South Sudan, we have Zain, MTN and the newly established Digitel and NCA needs to reach out to each of them to ensure high quality and uninterrupted communication during the election period.
The National Communication Authority plays a critical role as an enabler of access to information in the country’s peacebuilding efforts. The Authority, in collaboration with MNOs, other government bodies and non-state actors, needs to consistently facilitate the spreading of messages of “peace and unity” prior to the elections. As our communications authority, NCA has an obligation to provide digital platforms for the discourses of messages of peace and peaceful campaigns in the country during this monumental period. The more leaders, opinion-shapers and policy experts are seen to be talking about peace and elections, the more the people will listen and follow. Not only that, such platforms can be used to educate the general public on the electoral processes given that this will be the country’s first national elections since independence. Of more importance will be educating the population on their role in maintaining peace and order. In addition, this will require close collaboration with the media who are often the most powerful medium in a nation, especially during elections. Radio and TV programs should be developed, and this should start as early as January 2024. By the time December comes around, the education on the electoral processes and the effort to spread messages of peace will have already become embedded in our nation’s psyche. Also, given how South Sudan is already vulnerable to cybercrimes, hate speech and incitement, the NCA will have to monitor all social media platforms and penalise, directly or through relevant government organs, people and institutions that encourage the spread of lies, hate, and/or misinformation in accordance with the governing laws. This is the only way to effectively prevent incitement/hate speech which we are likely to experience if the NCA does not take stringent measures.
In the lead-up to the 2024 Elections, NCA’s work will possibly be crucial, and thus the authority should not relent in its mandate or be cowed by political pressures. Given the potential for political tensions and conflict, the NCA will have to be a strong and unrelenting voice of reason and impartiality during this time. I therefore look forward to seeing NCA’s consistent effort in the country’s aim for a peaceful and inclusive electoral process. The voices of all South Sudanese should also be heard, and collaborations with other relevant stakeholders to facilitate a peaceful process will be critical.
All in all, I am very optimistic about the upcoming elections and I am glad that we have Eng. Napoleon Adok at the helm of communications during this most sensitive time in our history. I can already see the positive strides that the NCA under his leadership has been making and I simply urge the Authority to up the ante and put in place measures to strengthen our communications infrastructure, reduce cybercrime and hate speech, and most of all, ensure that the narrative spread during this period will be centred around the need for the peaceful exercise of our democratic right of choosing the leaders of our choice. I cannot stress this enough.
Let us borrow a leaf from our neighbours Kenya, a country I have known very intimately since I studied there during the 2017 elections. These elections were very peaceful despite the ethnic tensions that constantly beset the country. I saw, firsthand, how instrumental Kenya’s communication authority was in promoting peace and facilitating peaceful elections, and I have no doubt that the NCA will similarly play a central role in our country’s first ever national elections.
Exciting times lay ahead, and I urge every citizen to uphold peace and oneness when the elections finally arrive. Regardless of what inevitable tensions may arise, or the prevalence of existing enmities, the clarion call by all should be “peace, peace, peace!” We are South Sudanese first above all and this country is our business. Let us lay aside our differences and come together in love, peace, and unity. As the late great Nelson Mandela once quipped, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
I for one, my choice in the 2024 elections will be His Excellency Salva Kiir Mayardit, the Chairman of the historic SPLM party and the President of our beloved nation.
God bless South Sudan. God bless us all.
Arol Dut Jok can be reached through: firstname.lastname@example.org