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South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan
Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan
Report 217 / Africa

South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name

Refocusing international engagement as well as the peace negotiations is essential to stop South Sudan’s raging civil war from claiming ever more lives.

Executive Summary

On 15 December 2013 the world’s newest state descended into civil war. Continuing fighting has displaced more than 1,000,000 and killed over 10,000 while a humanitarian crisis threatens many more. Both South Sudanese and the international community were ill-prepared to prevent or halt the conflict: the nation’s closest allies did little to mediate leadership divisions within the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM and its army (SPLA) quickly split along divisions largely unaddressed from the independence war, resulting in the formation of the SPLA in Opposition. Were it not for the intervention of Uganda and allied rebel and militia groups, the SPLA would likely not have been able to hold Juba or recapture lost territory. The war risks tearing the country further apart and is pulling in regional states. Resolving the conflict requires not a quick fix but sustained domestic and international commitment. Governance, including SPLM and SPLA reform and communal relations, must be on the table. Religious and community leaders, civil society and women are critical to this process and must not be excluded.

Although the dispute within the SPLM that led to the conflict was primarily political, ethnic targeting, communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals. Dinka elements of the Presidential Guard and other security organs engaged in systematic violence against Nuer in Juba in the early days. Armed actors, including the Nuer White Army, responded by targeting Dinka and other civilians in more than a dozen locations. Other communities are being drawn into the conflict and there is an increasing possibility of more significant foreign intervention.

The regional organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), responded quickly. Three envoys, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin (Ethiopia), General Lazarus Sumbeiywo (Kenya) and General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dhabi (Sudan) shuttled between Juba, Addis Ababa, where peace talks have been held, and opposition-controlled territory and, after weeks of pressure and negotiation, obtained a cessation of hostilities. However, this was violated almost immediately, and fighting continues, as a monitoring and verification mission struggles to establish itself on the ground.

Neighbouring Uganda (also an IGAD member), as well as forces associated with Sudanese armed opposition groups, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), intervened early in support of the South Sudanese government. That in turn may yet trigger Sudan government support to the SPLA in Opposition. Announced plans for an IGAD-led force, about which there are critical mandate, composition and funding questions, raises the prospect of even greater regional involvement in the civil war.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hosting almost 70,000 civilians fleeing ethnic reprisals, but its badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias. It has already come under attack, including a fatal one in Jonglei, while protecting civilians. In at least five locations, South Sudanese seeking protection have been targeted and killed by armed actors in or around UNMISS bases. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from government officials and some opposition commanders and limitations on its freedom of movement are additional challenges. The reprioritisation of its mandated tasks has essentially divided the country in two for the beleaguered UNMISS: it remains impartial in one part, while supporting the government in another. This decision will do little to clarify its role for South Sudanese and should be reviewed before the mandate is renewed.

As peace talks stall, the civil war rages on. To prevent further catastrophe, the country’s leaders and its international partners need to consider a radical restructuring of the state. Propping up the government in Juba and polishing its legitimacy with a dose of political dialogue and a dash of power sharing will not end the conflict. New constituencies have to be admitted to a national dialogue and their perspectives respected, including armed groups and disaffected communities that go beyond the contending forces within the SPLM/A, as well as women and civil society more generally. These constituencies are critical to rebuilding the SPLM, increasing democratic space within and beyond the party, drafting a national constitution and preparing for credible national elections. If these processes are to be viable, they will not be able to proceed according to the pre-war timeline. Political commitments must match the new realities. The country needs fundamental reworking of the governance agreement between and within elites and communities if a negotiated settlement is to lead to a sustainable peace.

Troops of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) wait for the arrival of members of the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM) at the Pillbam military base in Juba, 16 April 2016. AFP/Albert Gonzalez Farran
Statement / Africa

Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan

The honeymoon period is now over for the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, which formally ended the civil war in August 2015. Its guarantors need to act urgently in the next days to save it and prevent the country from returning to full-scale combat.

The agreement successfully enabled the return of Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), to Juba and the subsequent formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity in April. However, the formerly warring parties are now flouting it and increasingly preparing for widespread conflict. Implementation is stalled and fighting is already proliferating around the country. Unless something is done, it is a matter of only a little time before there is a return to war, and the agreement collapses.

For the moment, the permanent ceasefire, though increasingly strained, continues to hold in the civil war’s major conflict theatre. From the perspective of many in Salva Kiir’s wartime government, it applies only to the Greater Upper Nile region, therefore the proliferation of conflicts in Greater Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal, such as the recent deadly clashes in Wau, does not affect their commitment to the peace agreement. However, the increasing number of discrete conflicts in other regions could trigger renewed fighting in Greater Upper Nile or Juba and lead to a far more explosive return to a broad civil conflict. 

While the SPLA-IO in Greater Upper Nile is not as strong as it was in early 2014, when many army divisions split and soldiers defected to the rebels, its presence in Juba and recruitment of forces and allies in Greater Equatoria place the capital under a renewed threat, particularly its civilians, who are at risk of ethnically-targeted violence.

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 be an untenable status quo even if there were political progress, which there is not.

Renewed conflict would be devastating for South Sudan. It could also quickly lead to the regional contagion experienced in 2014, when the Ugandan military intervened in favour of Juba, and Sudan supported the SPLA-IO – and could reverse the nascent rapprochement between Uganda and Sudan. The risk of regional war motivated the mediation efforts of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). It, as well as other international actors, put enormous pressure on Kiir and Machar to sign the peace agreement and establish the transitional government. The collapse of the agreement could have serious implications for the regional stability that IGAD’s Heads of State worked hard to protect.

At the African Union summit in Kigali within two weeks, IGAD has a chance to prevent a return to full-scale war. The Heads of State should consider the points of dispute and give the parties clear directives to salvage the agreement and prevent war. This should include:

  • using IGAD’s authority, as the agreement’s guarantors, to re-affirm the warring parties’ commitment to the ceasefire and rejection of further violence;
  • asserting that IGAD member states are fully aware of the deterioration of the political situation and prepared to expend resources on mediation and diplomacy with key actors;
  • maintaining that IGAD member states are committed to the peace deal and will act through IGAD to secure regional stability if violence breaks out again; and
  • directing the parties to act on key tenets of the agreement and IGAD resolutions, including IGAD’s directions for a detailed plan on cantonment of forces and clarification of the terms of reference for the committee to resolve outstanding issues related to the government’s expansion of the number of South Sudan states from 10 to 28.

Against the odds, the IGAD Heads of State came together last year and in effect forced an agreement on the parties. Their current lack of focus on peace implementation allows the parties to prevaricate and avoid implementing aspects they do not like. If the Heads of State do not take decisions that reflect the seriousness of the situation and follow up with action, their two years’ peacemaking work could amount to little.