Since fighting erupted in Juba in July 2016 and a major rebel faction returned to war, rebel groups have proliferated though conflict is much reduced from its height in 2014. The government’s current strategy can secure Juba but cannot deliver sustainable nationwide peace. Of the millions experiencing hunger due to the conflict’s impact on civilians, the UN declared 100,000 in famine conditions for several months in 2017. Through field-based research and engagement with relevant national, regional and international actors, Crisis Group aims to support humanitarian access and build a new consensus around sustainable peace efforts that address the regionalised nature of the conflict as well as its localised dynamics.
In the years right after apartheid fell, South Africa was a leader in continental diplomacy, brokering peace accords and bolstering multilateral institutions. Its role subsequently diminished, but today it is well placed to make a positive difference in several trouble spots.
Intercommunal violence erupted in centre and east, President Kiir and former rebel leader turned VP Riek Machar made some progress in setting transitional govt in motion, while tensions persisted between govt and holdout rebel group in south despite truce. Intercommunal violence flared up late Feb-early March in centre and east, killing hundreds and displacing thousands by end of month. Notably, clashes between several communities reportedly left 41 dead in Lakes state mid-March and cattle raiders 20 March attacked camp in Tonj South county, Warrap state, leaving 51 dead. Following Feb agreement between Kiir, Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) and South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) to form unity govt, Kiir 12 March unveiled cabinet of 35 ministers, of which he appointed twenty, Machar nine, and SSOA three. Three SPLA-IO senior generals 17 March defected to Kiir-aligned South Sudan People’s Defense Forces, citing discontent with Machar’s leadership, reportedly over appointment of his wife Angelina Teny and personal aide Puit Kang to key ministries; another SPLA-IO commander reportedly defected to Kiir 26 March. Amid growing power-vacuum at state level and rise in intercommunal violence, UN 9 March urged Kiir and Machar to resolve deadlock over appointment of governors and implement transitional security arrangements to shore up peace process. Rebel group National Salvation Front, which refused to be part of Sept 2018 peace agreement, 20 March accused govt of violating, in Central Equatoria region in south, truce brokered in Jan between govt and non-signatory armed groups. UN human rights body in South Sudan 9 March released report accusing govt officials and opposition leaders of widespread corruption and of having used child soldiers and starvation as tactic of war. In response to COVID-19, govt 13 March suspended flights from virus-affected countries; 24 March suspended all commercial flights, closed borders, and imposed night curfew; 27 March suspended training of unified army.
South Sudan’s conflict parties are supposed to form a unity government by 12 November. But key disputes between them remain unresolved. External actors should push the adversaries to make progress on these matters before entering any power-sharing arrangement – lest war erupt once more.
The truce in South Sudan is holding but could break down at any time. To stave off renewed civil war, external actors should urge the belligerents to strike new bargains on security and internal boundaries – and accept a third-party protection force for the capital.
In 2018, the African Union (AU) and its new Assembly Chairperson President Paul Kagame of Rwanda have the chance to push ahead with much-needed institutional reforms. But the AU must not lose focus on dire conflicts and defusing potential electoral violence.
Vigilante groups have been successful in providing local security. But subcontracting security functions to vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes is a dangerous option for fragile African states. African leaders should set clear objectives and mandates when enlisting vigilantes and invest in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs.
China, traditionally averse to intervening abroad, is testing the role of peacebuilder in South Sudan, where it has unique leverage. This could portend a growing global security role, but further Chinese engagement will likely be tempered by self-interest, capacity constraints and aversion to risk.
War in South Sudan led the UN to declare 100,000 people are suffering famine, with a further 5.5 million at risk. This special briefing urges the country to work harder to establish parameters for a ceasefire. At the same time, humanitarian corridors from Sudan should be kept open and donors must fully fund the UN aid appeal.
"[South Sudan president Kiir and former rebel leader Machar] still have much to work through, but Machar was unlikely to extract more significant concessions before forming the government.
[In South Sudan] the dispute over the configuration of states became a major impasse blocking the peace process from moving towards a unity government.
The U.S. has gone from South Sudan’s chief backer to its main naysayer.
The intensity of the violence shows just how great South Sudan’s challenges remain even in a best-case scenario of the national peace process solidifying.
The South Sudan peace process is at serious risk of derailing following the UNSC visit to Juba. The strategy to simply pressure on Nov 12 deadline has already failed. It’s time to pivot.
Until Salva Kiir and Riek Machar strike more deals on a path forward, the peace deal will keep spinning its wheels. In six months, South Sudan may be stuck in the same spot.
Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for South Sudan Alan Boswell recounts what he found during his recent field trip to South Sudan.
South Sudan’s rival parties have temporarily salvaged prospects for peace, agreeing a six-month deadline extension to allow for the formation of a unity government. But the country’s external partners must sustain pressure on both sides to preserve a ceasefire and maintain consensus on a path forward.
In 2019, the African Union faces many challenges, with conflicts old and new simmering across the continent. To help resolve these crises – our annual survey lists seven particularly pressing ones – the regional organisation should also push ahead with institutional reforms.