The signing of a power-sharing agreement between sworn enemies in South Sudan should be a cause for celebration. President Salva Kiir’s tentative deal with his former Vice-President Riek Machar in Khartoum in August is one of the most hopeful things to have happened in the last two years, given the worsening political and humanitarian crises. But it is far from being a solution in itself. The continued mistrust, and the shallowness of the peace process, are in fact real causes for concern.
The situation is remarkable in many ways. Not least is the impact which these leaders’ hostility has had on their fragile country: a third of the population (more than four million people) have been displaced by fighting since 2013, and an estimated seven million people have been affected by food insecurity – some of them severely. The wounds are deep, since these leaders effectively represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer. Politics has become even more polarised along ethnic lines, as have its military forces. There are widespread and well-documented reports of ethnic cleansing, rape, and worse, on the basis of ethnicity. The state forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is increasingly regarded as pursuing the interests of the Dinka group, while Machar’s SPLM-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition) is largely a Nuer force.
The two forces fought each other openly in the capital, Juba, in July 2016 as Machar was forced to flee not just government but the country. He ended up in South Africa where he spent more than a year under effective house arrest, while regional powers sought to restore some kind of calm. So his return to government – as agreed on paper at least – seems like even more of an achievement.
The real concern is that the peace agreement has only been initialled under duress from regional powers – President Kiir was strongly opposed to Machar’s release and any role for him in a future government – rather than having some kind of basis in changing relationships. The negotiations have focussed on issues which look more like a carve up of state resources for the elites involved. The number of vice-presidents is being increased to five (with Machar due to return as First Vice-President). Parliament has been increased to 550 members, with the additional seats divided out under the agreement rather than through any kind of election. Even the government itself has ballooned to 45 ministers (again divided out by faction, with most going to the two largest groups). While the country suffers from one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, patronage and state capture have taken priority.
From new state to failed state
South Sudan is still celebrated as one of the newest states, having become independent in July 2011. (Independence day celebrations were cancelled this year for the third year running due to lack of state funds.) It achieved its sovereignty after decades of war with northern Sudan, which cost millions of lives. The peace process went remarkably smoothly, with a referendum overwhelmingly endorsing the creation of a new state. Analysts who expected Sudan to somehow overturn the process were proven wrong, even though it meant the breakaway nation leaving with nearly all the oil fields which had started to boost the Sudanese economy. There was considerable international support for the SPLA’s difficult transition from guerrilla movement to proto-state. But the ethnic tensions (exploited by Khartoum during the war) and weak, corrupt, or non-existent institutions were always going to be a huge challenge.
Just over two years after independence, the power-sharing government which ushered in the new state fell apart amid mistrust and rivalry between the two leaders in December 2013. Civilians quickly fled as the ethnic nature of the violence became clear almost immediately. Regional powers brokered an unstable deal – not a good precedent for the current agreement – which allowed Machar to return to the capital. But within months the violence broke out again, in the July 2016 clashes during which he was forced to flee.
Consequences of war
The consequences for South Sudan have been dire – and this was a country already deeply impoverished by neglect and war even before it achieved its independence. Food production has been affected by millions of people fleeing their homes, and insecurity preventing the movement of goods. Famine was declared in parts Unity State in February 2017, exactly as predicted, and only a massive international aid effort prevented deaths on an enormous scale. This year has been worse in ways: the World Food Program (WFP) warned of “alarming” levels of food insecurity with some communities again just “a step away from famine”. Nearly two-thirds of the population (7.1 million people) were facing severe food insecurity by the end of July. The WFP assisted 2.6 million people in May this year alone.
The link between conflict and hunger in South Sudan has been well documented. It is worsened by continued fighting preventing access by humanitarian organisations. South Sudan has been listed as the most dangerous place for aid workers to operate: 28 were killed last year, bringing the total to more than 100 since 2013.
In terms of displacement, 2.47 million are now refugees in neighbouring countries, with more than a million in Uganda. A total of 1.76 million are internally displaced, with about 200,000 seeking shelter at Protection of Civilians sites in or beside UN bases across the country. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has faced a difficult task in trying implement its complex and multi-dimensional mandate to protect civilians (amongst other things), given the hostile attitude of the government. At the UN Security Council, an arms embargo was finally imposed in July through Resolution 2428, which had failed to get enough votes to pass at its last outing in the final days of the Obama administration. The government meanwhile extended President Kiir’s term of office to 2021 with little fuss in July.
Human rights abuses, sexual violence, and the killing of civilians has continued to deepen enmities and erode trust, even as elites talked “peace” in neighbouring capitals. A report by UNMISS and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented atrocities in detail in April, in which the SPLA was implicated among others.
First steps in a peace process?
So, an actual peace process was never more needed. The main sponsor has been the regional body of states (including South Sudan itself) known as IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development). It brokered a cessation of hostilities in December (which is frequently ignored) and effectively gave permission for the release of Riek Machar from house arrest in South Africa in late March (something strongly opposed by President Kiir). Talks principally involving the two groups, along with other less powerful factions, took place in the neighbouring capitals of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. The agreement was initialled in August by most parties in Khartoum, followed by further renegotiations there with a further deal being initialled at on 30th August. Talks on the implementation matrix continued in Khartoum.
But even if the agreement can be implemented – including the tricky questions of power-sharing and reintegration of Riek Machar’s forces into a national army – the problems are far from over. The deal represents a share-out of jobs and resources for those with leverage, rather than a peace process. There are of course many voices of courage in South Sudan, with the vision, humanity, and solidarity to build a future based on co-existence, despite the very hostile environment for civil society organisations. A deal which involves elites and armed elements seeking to advance their interests is not a peace process which can heal the alarming ethnic polarisation of national politics and everyday life in South Sudan. The importance of a process like this is well understood, but the country is a long way from seeing the leadership which would allow this kind of dialogue to emerge.
Arensen, Michael J, 2016, If We Leave We Are Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016, International Organization for Migration, South Sudan.
Christian Aid, 2018, In It for the Long Haul? Lessons on Peacebuilding in South Sudan, London and Juba: Christian Aid
Concern Worldwide, 2018, Conflict and Hunger: The Lived Experience of Conflict and Food Insecurity in South Sudan
Jok Madut Jok, 2017, Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, Oneworld Publications.
Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2016, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, Washington DC: Center for Civilians in Conflict.
United Nations, 2018, Letter dated 12 April 2018 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/292