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De-escalating South Sudan’s New Flare-up
De-escalating South Sudan’s New Flare-up
Bolstering South Sudan’s Peace Deal
Bolstering South Sudan’s Peace Deal
South Sudanese policemen and soldiers stand guard along a street following renewed fighting in South Sudan’s capital Juba, 10 July 2016. REUTERS
Commentary / Africa

De-escalating South Sudan’s New Flare-up

In this Q&A, senior analyst for South Sudan, Casie Copeland, explains what is behind the fighting in Juba and what can help prevent the conflict spiralling out of control.

Violent clashes in the capital of South Sudan have soured the country’s fifth anniversary of independence. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were killed in the four days after 7 July, including two Chinese peacekeepers. The confrontation threatens to destroy the fragile progress made toward implementing a 2015 peace agreement to end a two-year civil war. The deal had allowed some opposition soldiers back into the capital, Juba, and the clashes have been between them and units of the national army and presidential guard. The UN is protecting tens of thousands of civilians in its compounds around the city, one of which has been repeatedly hit. 

Crisis Group: What triggered this recent spate of violence, and who is responsible?

Casie Copeland: The return to conflict was a growing danger, as Crisis Group noted in its 1 July statement on Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan. In the nine months that the ceasefire has been observed, forces have simply paused hostilities while remaining in close proximity: there has been no joint security oversight or move toward unification or demobilisation. This would have been an untenable status quo even if there had been political progress, which has not materialised.

The South Sudanese warring parties signed the 2015 peace agreement, brokered by the regional security organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), under tremendous external pressure, particularly from neighbouring Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as China and the U.S. Following the signing, regional powers greatly reduced their focus on South Sudan and IGAD’s mediation became inactive. This allowed the South Sudanese parties to backtrack to their original uncompromising positions. By early July, there had been no political progress on implementing the peace agreement and, in the absence of credible external intervention, no such progress seemed likely.

Tensions thus never dissipated between government forces loyal to President Kiir and Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO) troops following First Vice President Machar, who had returned to Juba under the 2015 peace agreement. Frictions rose over a series of incidents – with both groups at fault at different points – in the last weeks of June and early July. By 7 July almost anything could have sparked the larger battles that began on the weekend of 9-10 July. Once fighting broke out, combat continued despite calls by both leaders to stop, highlighting the complicated relationship between the leadership and different military units.

What’s at stake for South Sudan?

Renewed war would be devastating. The civil war from 2013 to 2015 was particularly brutal, with many instances of ethnic targeting and other atrocities, and humanitarian suffering that was compounded by a growing economic crisis. The fighting killed far more than 50,000 people, displaced approximately 2.3 million and the UN estimates that some five million will require humanitarian assistance in 2016. In 2014, regional powers were drawn in when the Ugandan military intervened in favour of Juba and Salva Kiir, and Sudan provided limited support to the SPLA-IO opposition forces.

IGAD’s mediation mission was partly motivated by the risk of regional war. International actors joined the group in putting enormous pressure on President Kiir and First Vice President and SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar to sign the August 2015 peace agreement and establish a transitional government – both leaders objected to parts of the deal.

What can IGAD do to pull South Sudan back from the brink?

A unified regional position in IGAD, backed up by the African Union, China and the U.S., is crucial. Both Kiir and Machar know they cannot sustain a war for long without the support of at least some neighbouring states. During the recent days of fighting, each of the IGAD heads of state reached out to Kiir, Machar and others involved in the fighting to make clear that they needed to lay down their arms and that no one in the region supported a return to war.

Beyond a ceasefire – which is a temporary measure at best – IGAD must come to agreement, again supported by the African Union, China and U.S., on the consequences the two men, their military commanders and factions will suffer if they do not stop fighting. This is especially important for Uganda and Sudan, which have particular influence with the government and opposition SPLA-IO respectively.

Will Uganda and Sudan seek to repeat their interventions seen earlier in the civil war?

A nascent rapprochement between Uganda and Sudan, and a great wariness in Khartoum and Kampala about the destabilising potential of greater involvement in South Sudan’s conflicts, are directing their efforts toward peace rather than supporting renewed war. Uganda in particular feels unfairly criticised for sending in troops to support the government in 2013.

IGAD member states, along with their supporters including the U.S. and Chinese governments, helped secure a ceasefire which was declared by Kiir and Machar on 11 July. If it does not hold, the position of regional states will be critical, since any additional measures, such as an intervention brigade or any form of sanction, whether against individuals or an arms embargo, would need to be implemented and enforced by these countries.

In its communiqué on 11 July, IGAD called for an “intervention brigade”. This was first proposed in 2014 during the mediation but faltered as the UN and IGAD could not agree on its relationship to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), or on the mechanisms of financial and logistical control. The Security Council also suggested UNMISS could be augmented by troops from the region to secure Juba. Deploying regional forces into UNMISS or independently would take time and would not resolve the immediate standoff.

Why is the IGAD-led peace process worth saving?

Some argue that the IGAD deal deferred some issues, such as what type of federal government should be created and whether a power-sharing arrangement between the war’s two main protagonists could set South Sudan on the path to stability. But it halted the fighting, created a framework for reform, transitional justice and elections and prevented regional powers being further sucked into South Sudan’s war. IGAD agreed that it would not be destabilised under an agreement that kept Kiir as president and Machar as first vice president. A divided IGAD where individual states meddled in South Sudan would have led to far greater bloodshed.

A particular problem since the peace agreement’s signing has been that the IGAD leaders who helped forge it have been absent during the difficult implementation phase. Specifically, the failure to implement a number of the agreement’s political and security provisions laid the groundwork for recent conflict. Now that a ceasefire has been called, those IGAD leaders should push Kiir and Machar to quickly operationalise the security arrangements in the peace agreement, particularly by establishing Joint Integrated Police units to patrol Juba, empowering the Joint Operations Center to ensure communication and coordination between forces in Juba, and empowering the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission. These mechanisms should also be supported by donors.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 11 July urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, sanction leaders and commanders who are blocking the implementation of a peace deal and fortify a UN peacekeeping mission. If agreed to, would this help?

At this point, with a fragile ceasefire agreed and thus far holding, any punitive international action should be imposed carefully – and only in close coordination with IGAD and regional powers – otherwise it could undermine the ceasefire or even empower hardliners who support renewed war. Sanctions and arms embargoes can be valuable tools, but only where they serve clear political objectives.

Given the breakdown in the peace agreement, IGAD, supported by the African Union and major powers, particularly the U.S. and China, should re-assess their various political objectives in South Sudan, including the promise of stronger action if there is no compliance or if there is further fighting. The African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government summit meeting in Kigali, Rwanda on 17-18 July is a good opportunity to convene a high-level meeting on South Sudan.

Do President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar actually have full control over their forces?

The situation is fluid and, especially on the opposition side, lines of control have exhibited the same level of flux they exhibited during most of the war. Many soldiers have followed senior opposition officials other than Machar. Another problem is that many of the opposition soldiers killed were from Machar’s own official guard.

As Crisis Group noted in South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, many opposition forces are not personally loyal to Machar, instead they rose up in response to violence against ethnically Nuer civilians in Juba in December 2013 and only begrudgingly accepted Machar as the movement’s overall leader. This has always been the case and the recent fighting is no different to challenges in command and control the opposition SPLA-IO faced across the country during their rebellion.

The government has continued to counsel restraint among its forces but reports of looting, drunkenness and attacks on the UN base indicate that many have not heeded these orders.

With a number of peacekeepers killed in the recent fighting, how vulnerable is the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)? Do they have the resources needed to protect civilians fleeing the violence?

Peacekeepers have the means to respond to and deter some attacks on protection of civilian sites in or near UNMISS bases. When challenged by UN forces, some South Sudanese armed groups have retreated. UNMISS, however, lacks the numbers and equipment to protect all civilians, including those in Juba. Yet the mission has not been very assertive and not all of its forces are equally committed to its mandate. Some have literally run from their protection obligations.

There have been many attacks on UN facilities during the last years of war and, to date, no one has been arrested or prosecuted. The UN is an “easy target” in the eyes of many, making the situations particularly dangerous for its staff and civilians under its protection.

So far, the violence appears to be mainly confined to Juba. What is the risk that the fighting may escalate to other areas in South Sudan?

Fortunately the fighting has died down for now. But if it resumes there is a risk that it spreads and becomes much more difficult to end. Forces throughout the country are preparing for war and civilians are fleeing areas where they fear fighting. During the civil war, most of the fighting was confined to the Greater Upper Nile, where the opposition is strong in the far north, but since the August 2015 peace agreement the SPLA-IO has been actively recruiting in other areas particularly in greater Equatoria, in the south, where government forces are stronger. Fighting in the former Upper Nile state could be very intense, while in the Equatorias, fewer weapons and forces means it would likely be on a much smaller scale. The possibility of conflict spreading to different areas remains and is of grave concern.

Commentary / Africa

Bolstering South Sudan’s Peace Deal

Amid growing regional unrest, a fragile peace deal brokered between the warring parties in South Sudan has not won a broader political settlement. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group advises the EU to take a lead in negotiations and put conditions on its monitoring of the agreement.

Five years into a brutal civil war, South Sudan enters 2019 with fragile hopes for peace. A September 2018 agreement between the main belligerents, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, brokered by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has succeeded in curbing the fighting. That is reason enough to embrace the accord. But the deal is far more armistice than final settlement: it calls for negotiations between the warring parties that will lead to a unity government and, later, elections. An agreement along the same lines in 2016 proved short-lived, as the unity government collapsed barely two months after its formation. Moreover, the new accord appears at a time when Horn of Africa politics are in flux and leaders in the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional bloc overseeing the peace process, are increasingly distracted by problems at home. International actors will need to push IGAD to see its mandate through. The U.S. – long the West’s diplomatic lead on South Sudan – has pulled back, leaving no immediate replacement to conduct this critical diplomacy.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Assume greater diplomatic leadership on South Sudan, building upon the extensive humanitarian aid Europe gives to the world’s newest state. The EU appears unlikely to appoint an additional envoy focused solely on South Sudan, but European diplomats could coordinate and step up their own shuttle diplomacy between regional capitals to keep implementation of the peace deal moving forward, while also exploring what a longer-term settlement might entail.
  • Condition any additional support for the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, the regional body that oversees the peace deal’s implementation, upon appointment of a strong commission chair; the EU’s continued support for ceasefire monitoring should be conditional on the timely release of ceasefire violation reports.

Stepping up European Diplomacy

South Sudan’s truce follows years of on-and-off mediation by IGAD, the Horn of African body that includes Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and Djibouti. For years regional diplomacy was led by Ethiopia, supported by the EU and other partners. In June, however, new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed relinquished his country’s grip over the deadlocked peace process to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Bashir has greater leverage over both Kiir’s government and Machar’s rebels: the former depends on Khartoum to facilitate South Sudan’s oil exports; the latter have long relied on Khartoum for arms and financing. Bashir quickly struck a series of deals with Kiir to boost oil production, then enlisted Museveni to press his ally, Kiir, to grant Machar a return to the first vice presidency. Machar had held this office under the earlier version of the peace deal, from April to July 2016, and Bashir pressured him to accept the new terms.

While a deal exists on paper, and indeed has led to significant reductions in violence across much of South Sudan, many of its provisions appear unlikely to be implemented any time soon. Indeed, even its core elements remain contested. Perhaps the biggest obstacle and danger lies in still-to-be-determined transitional security arrangements – chiefly, how the parties will share security duties in a unity government and who would provide security to Machar were he to return to the capital Juba. In 2016, the U.S. and others urged Machar to go back to Juba before any such understandings were in place. His forces then clashed in the city streets with those of Kiir, ushering in a wider war as violence spread. The September 2018 deal specifies that the parties will assemble, train, and unify a force to deploy to Juba and form the core of a new national army; privately, however, Kiir’s representatives indicate they will not allow any of Machar’s forces back into the capital. Machar is unlikely to return until there is a clear understanding of the security arrangements, nor should he be pressured to do so.

Another challenge to the deal is the absence of an active international diplomatic lead [in South Sudan].

Even leaving aside the difficulty of fleshing out the agreement’s details, a wider challenge lies at its core. The deal is still predicated on power sharing between Kiir and Machar and a transition period of three years culminating in a presidential election, which both men are certain to want to contest. This same dynamic – the competition between the two men for the presidency – has been the principal driver of South Sudan’s war over the past five years. While it continues, it is unlikely that any agreement can offer a basis for a durable settlement. It also undercuts prospects of the two parties reaching agreement on other critical issues (such as security arrangements), given that they view those issues largely through the prism of how they impact the future presidential contest. There is no easy answer to this challenge in light of both men’s outsized influence. Indeed, efforts over the past two years to sideline Machar have failed, because he still commands authority over a large constituency in South Sudan. One remaining option, which a growing number of South Sudanese and some in the region support, is returning power to South Sudan’s three greater regions, which would decrease the stakes of the presidency by sharing power more broadly.

Yet another challenge to the deal is the absence of an active international diplomatic lead. From the early 2000s to 2017, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan (and, later, South Sudan) played this role, as de facto head of the so-called Troika – the U.S., the UK and Norway. Since Donald Trump’s election, however, the special envoy’s office has been vacant. True, even with an envoy, the track record of U.S. diplomacy on South Sudan was hardly a success. But without it, no diplomat from outside the region can maintain the attention of regional leaders, for whom ending South Sudan’s conflict is rarely a top-tier concern, on South Sudan’s peace process. The absence is particularly keenly felt now, given turmoil in Sudan and Abiy’s long list of other priorities. The U.S. may still appoint a new envoy, but even were it to do so there are strong signs the White House is tiring of its involvement in South Sudan; when announcing the administration’s new Africa strategy in December 2018, for example, National Security Advisor John Bolton singled out the country as an example of how U.S. assistance had failed.

Europe should consider how best it can fill this gap. In principle, the EU is well positioned to take on a larger diplomatic role, given Europe’s heavy investment in South Sudan’s stability and the generous humanitarian relief it provides to its people. That said, the EU appears unlikely to appoint an additional envoy dedicated solely to South Sudan. Another option might be for the EU to formalise a stronger partnership with the Troika to help shore up the deficit created by the U.S.’s diminished engagement. This coordinated diplomacy would not only seek to advance the existing peace process, particularly by seeking an agreement on security arrangements, but also test the waters on what a more durable settlement might look like.

South Sudan’s peace deal remains contested and incomplete; whether it provides a sustainable basis for ending the war is at best uncertain.

Beyond this diplomatic role, the EU and its member states should continue to support the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, the African-led body responsible for overseeing the peace deal’s implementation. It should also continue to fund the monitors, who are deployed under the auspices of another mechanism, the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Monitoring and Verification Mechanism, which reports to both the joint monitoring commission and directly to IGAD, to investigate ceasefire violations. However, support to both mechanisms should be conditional. First, the EU should demand that the ceasefire monitoring mechanism publicly report all ceasefire violations; in the past, the failure to publish the monitors’ findings meant that violating parties were spared any scrutiny or public and diplomatic pressure. Secondly, it should seek rapid appointment of a heavyweight joint commission chair, for example an influential former head of state, to ensure the body is effective. The previous chair, former Botswana President Festus Mogae, stood down in September 2018; that at this critical phase of the new peace deal the chair remains empty is a major concern.

South Sudan’s peace deal remains contested and incomplete; whether it provides a sustainable basis for ending the war is at best uncertain. Western donors supported a similar deal less than three years ago only to see it collapse, widening the war across the country and sparking a new phase of the civil war that forced hundreds of thousands more to flee the country. But it is worth the EU expending additional diplomatic capital to try and keep this agreement from suffering a similar, bloody fate. Its collapse could precipitate another round of fighting and further suffering for yet another generation of South Sudanese.