South Sudanese opposition officials and civil society activists have condemned as self-serving and unconstitutional a move by parliament to extend the terms of the country's elected officials, including themselves and President Salva Kiir.
"It is actually illegal for this parliament to extend the term of the president for three years," former political detainee Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who is now deputy foreign affairs secretary in Riek Machar's rebel movement, said.
"It is a violation of the constitution of the Republic of South Sudan and we are calling on the people of South Sudan to reject it and call the government to focus on negotiating in good faith and bring peace," he said.
The government cannot change that mandate without going back to the people, the source of power.
South Sudanese lawmakers voted Tuesday to delay elections, which were due to be held at the end of June, and extend the terms of all elected officials by three years from July 9, the fourth anniversary of indepencence and the day after Kiir's term is set to end.
Thomas Wani Kundu, the chairman of the National Assembly's Information Committee, said more than 270 members of parliament from both houses voted in an extraordinary session of parliament in favor of the extensions.
People must vote
But Onyoti Adigo, the minority leader in parliament, chided his fellow lawmakers for changing the tenures of elected officials without putting the motion to a popular vote.
"The government cannot change that mandate without going back to the people, the source of power," he said during the extraordinary session at which the the motion was passed.
Opposition leader Lam Akol said parliament's decision to extend the mandates of all elected officials - including lawmakers themselves - was driven by self-interest.
“It proves the concern of the people that, all along, this government has never cared about the people. It looted the coffers of the country and after they did that they plunged the country into a devastating civil war... They want that war to continue,” he said.
The government should come with a clear plan on what they are to achieve in the next three years so that we don’t go to the end of the third year and say, 'Oops! We need another extension.'
Kundu told South Sudan in Focus on Tuesday that the motions to delay elections and extend officials' mandates were initiatives of President Kiir. He said the changes were designed to help restore peace in South Sudan.
But Gatkuoth said, "You don't need to extend your term to reach a peace deal. What you need to do is negotiate in good faith."
And the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, told reporters in Juba Wednesday, "The best way to extend the constitutional legitimacy beyond July 9th is through a peace agreement that would establish a transitional government of national unity."
Regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has been trying since January last year to broker a deal to end more than 15 months of fighting in South Sudan. Early last month, IGAD succeeded in getting President Kiir and Machar to sign a power-sharing proposal, which set a March 5 deadline for reaching a final peace deal and a July 9 deadline to set up a transitional government.
But March 5 came and went without an agreement to end the violence. Gatkuoth blamed the government for the failure to make peace.
"There was no deal reached because Salva [Kiir] was reluctant to reach a deal. We are still looking for an agreement. It is in the hands of Salva to compromise so that we can have a deal," he said.
Civil society activist Lorna James said it must be made clear to elected officials that the extension of their terms did not give them an open-ended mandate to remain in office.
"The government should come up with a clear plan on what they are to achieve in the next three years so that we don’t go to the end of the third year and say, 'Oops! We need another extension,'" she said.
James Butty interviewed Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth by phone from Washington, D.C. Charlton Doki contributed to this report from Juba.