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South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
A Critical Six Months for South Sudan
A Critical Six Months for South Sudan
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers stand at attention at a containment site outside Juba, 14 April 2016. AFP/Charles Lomodong
Commentary / Africa

South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse

International actors are struggling to respond to the evolving situation in South Sudan, meanwhile regional actors are busy creating facts on the ground.

One year ago, the main warring parties in South Sudan – the government and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) signed a peace agreement designed to end South Sudan’s nearly two-year civil war. The government only signed under concerted pressure from regional and international powers; yet despite Juba’s reservations, the agreement stopped the worst of the fighting. 

By mid-2016, peace implementation halted and fighting erupted between the government and rebel forces brought into Juba under a contentious post-agreement security deal. Following the brief fighting, the first vice president and SPLM/A-IO leader, Dr Riek Machar, left Juba and remained in the bush, waging a limited guerrilla conflict, for over a month. As the international community was focused on the security of Juba and their nationals, the South Sudanese government seized the opportunity and replaced Machar with the SPLM/A-IO’s General Taban Deng Gai as first vice president. 

Last week, the UN Security Council authorised a regional protection force, on the basis of regional endorsement for the force after the clashes in Juba. Despite agreeing in principle to a protection force, the South Sudanese government strenuously objects to the mandate, leaving little option but negotiations to secure consent for deployment. The regional force is to operate under the existing UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which includes more than 13,000 troops and police. The over-focus on a new peacekeeping mandate at the expense of political developments in the country reflects international disunity and a lack of political strategy. International actors are struggling to respond to the evolving situation while regional actors are busy creating facts on the ground. A stronger government, watered down peace agreement, a new regional force under the UN (which has little linkage to peace implementation) and growing regional divisions are some of the outcomes of the last month’s events.

How We Got Here

The regional organisation for the Horn of Africa, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), launched the peace talks that eventually resulted in the government and SPLM/A-IO signing the Agreement on the Resolution on the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS). The agreement called for the establishment of a transitional government and, through subsequent negotiations, Machar returned to Juba in April with a force of over 1,000 to take his place as first vice president of the transitional government.

Many members of both the government, led by President Salva Kiir, and the SPLM/A-IO were only interested in the parts of the agreement that would benefit them, while others engaged in political brinkmanship to seek maximum advantage from the deal’s various provisions.

By the middle of this year, implementation of the peace agreement had stalled. In this environment, IGAD-PLUS – a grouping intended to bolster the peace process that includes the African Union (AU), China, European Union (EU), the IGAD Partners Forum (IPF), Norway, UK, UN, and the U.S. – failed to recognise that Juba was a powder keg. The dangers were compounded by poorly designed post-ARCSS security arrangements that involved opposing forces in their thousands in the capital.

Conflict in Juba

Fighting between government forces and former rebels erupted in Juba in early July. As tensions increased, a series of violent incidents led to fighting at the Presidential Palace – where both Kiir and Machar were meeting. The fighting was started by a rogue SPLA-IO officer attempting to gain entry to the palace. Despite the protection he received from the president and senior security personnel, Machar failed to control his forces’ actions.

Amidst further fighting, the remaining SPLA-IO forces and much of its leadership, including Machar, withdrew from Juba. Government forces then took control of the Jebel area on the outskirts of Juba where the SPLA-IO forces and large UN base were located and were involved in violence and looting in that area. Machar’s predominantly ethnic Nuer SPLA-IO forces joined with Equatorian SPLA-IO members in different parts of Equatoria region (but not in close proximity to Juba), where there have been sporadic clashes, of varying degrees of seriousness, since.

During the fighting, Kiir protected many senior SPLM-IO officials, some of whom remain in Juba. Leading this group is Taban, Machar’s former chief negotiator. In a controversial meeting on 23 July, the few SPLM/A-IO members remaining in Juba appointed Taban as the group’s chairman. Following July’s fighting, many SPLM-IO members in Juba said they believed that Machar would not be able to return to Juba and work with the president. They think Taban was unlikely to seek the presidency, and therefore Kiir would be able to work with him. Taban was sworn in as first vice president on 26 July.

Political Impasse

Despite enjoying the support of the government and most of the SPLM/A-IO leaders in Juba, Taban does not have the support of the diverse military groupings that comprise the SPLM/A-IO. (However, the northern Bahr el Ghazal SPLA-IO forces defected to the government during July’s fighting.)

Meanwhile, Machar and remnants of his SPLA-IO forces in Juba moved to other parts of the Equatoria region. Some have remained peaceful while others are responsible for new recruitment and attacks against government and civilian targets, including South Sudan’s main Juba-Nimule road (a situation of concern to Uganda, which uses the road for profitable exports to Juba). Most of Machar’s forces that were expelled from Juba remain in the Equatoria region – far from the SPLM/A-IO strongholds in Greater Upper Nile. This is an untenable position, despite indications that his forces are receiving some material support from Sudan.

Amidst diplomatic conversations about putting South Sudan under UN trusteeship, sending an intervention force and imposing an arms embargo, other opposition figures from across the political spectrum ramped up anti-government agitation. With a perceived “power vacuum” in opposition leadership, new alliances emerged and leaders sought external support for rebellion.

Sudan’s limited support to the SPLM/A-IO effectively constrained both the activity and number of armed groups in South Sudan over the past three years. Khartoum’s current participation in talks with Juba over armed group activity, as well as the government’s preference to carry on with peace implementation with Taban as first vice president and begin integration offers, may be the only realistic alternative to further widespread conflict.

The diplomatic community in Juba is increasingly resigned to accepting Taban – a significant deal on armed group integration could cement his position and may offer the only viable option to pull back from renewed conflict, especially as Machar is unlikely to be welcomed back to Juba. In the midst of these significant developments, disunity and the lack of a political strategy among IGAD-PLUS leaves it struggling to respond to the evolving realities shaped by the South Sudanese and regional actors.

Regional Geopolitics

South Sudan has long been an arena in which regional powers competed for influence, and the geopolitics of its conflicts are now undergoing their most significant shift in more than a decade. The thaw in relations between Sudan and Uganda; ongoing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia; South Sudan’s strengthening of ties with Eritrea, and the deterioration of its relationship with Ethiopia have all created new opportunities and constraints both for South Sudanese parties and external peacemakers. Efforts to resolve the current conflict and pursue “punitive” measures against the South Sudanese government have run into opposition both within the region and on the UN Security Council.

This puts Juba’s supporters and those who propose measures that would have a negative effect on the government in increasingly polarised positions. Unlocking these complex geopolitical dynamics should be part and parcel of developing a political strategy that reduces regional tensions while bringing competing groups in South Sudan back into dialogue.

Sudan and Uganda

The outbreak of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013 brought longstanding tensions between Sudan and Uganda to the fore and caused many to fear a further regionalisation of the conflict. Yet through frequent meetings between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the two came to terms over South Sudan and took a series of steps toward a less confrontational relationship. The countries did not have long to settle into this posture before facing new challenges. July’s outbreak of conflict, subsequent discussions over an intervention or protection force, and SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar’s replacement as first vice president has placed the new relationship under an immediate stress test. Though both sides are taking actions to keep the peace, a renewed rift between Sudan and Uganda, with each side backing their favoured actor, could escalate conflict and further divide the region.

Ethiopia and South Sudan

At the civil war’s outset, Ethiopia hosted peace talks and tried to take a neutral position between the government and SPLM/A-IO, as well as with Sudan and Uganda. Ethiopia’s intention was to prevent South Sudan’s civil war from becoming a regional conflict. Still, South Sudan saw Ethiopia’s hosting of Machar, and even the peace talks, as being “unsupportive”, and viewed its close relationship with the U.S. – the main proponent of punitive measures against the government – as un-neighbourly. Following the tremendous pressure that Juba came under during negotiations to sign the ARCSS in August 2015, tensions continued to grow. The cold war between Addis and Juba is ever more apparent, and Juba’s belief that Addis is partial makes it increasingly difficult for Ethiopia to play a leading role in ARCSS implementation and potentially in the regional force. The two countries share a restive border and violent inter-communal clashes are common; conflict dynamics along the border will continue to be influenced by events in Addis and Juba.

Eritrea and South Sudan

Eritrea worked closely with the SPLA in the 1990s, particularly on its short-lived eastern front. During the period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005-2011), relations soured and Asmara was widely accused of providing material support to anti-SPLA groups. However, in 2014, the SPLM/A-IO was disappointed to discover that Eritrea would not provide them with support. As relations between Addis and Juba became increasingly complicated, Juba pursued a rapprochement with Asmara. With plans to strengthen ties, including the shipment of humanitarian assistance through Eritrea’s Massawa port, the restart of regular flights between the two countries and an increase in official bilateral activity, the relationship appears set to deepen. This sets off alarm bells in Addis and will further complicate the relationship between Ethiopia and South Sudan. Meanwhile, South Sudan may now provide an alternate stage for the projection of unresolved matters between Asmara and Addis.

Ethiopia and Egypt

Beyond the IGAD region, Egypt’s role in South Sudan has increased in importance, particularly following its ascension to a seat on the UN Security Council, where it generally takes a non-interventionist stance. Egypt is in a long-running dispute over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt believes the dam will reduce the flow of the river, particularly as its reservoir fills, violating principles on preventing downstream harm (one reason the World Bank declined to support it) and treaties on Nile water usage. Other Nile basin countries have challenged the continuing validity of treaties created while most of these states did not exist and have proposed a new one, which Egypt rejects. The dam is anticipated to finish in 2017, and current negotiations focus on the timeline for filling the reservoir. Egypt has engaged South Sudan in talks on how to increase the water flow from the White Nile. This mutually beneficial relationship gives Juba a key ally on the Security Council at a time when it faces calls from other council members for further sanctions, arms embargos, demilitarisation of the capital and a regional force. Ethiopia, which does not always share the same approach to South Sudan as Egypt, will join the Security Council in 2017.

Regional Protection Force

Following July’s fighting, IGAD agreed to send a regional force to South Sudan. This was a revival of its 2014 proposal for a regional protection force, intended to put some weight behind the IGAD mediation, but it faltered in negotiations with the UN. The new force was subject to more than a month of debates over its mandate, composition and size. While the South Sudanese government consented in principle to the force, it strenuously objected to the mandate agreed on in UN Security Council Resolution 2304 on 12 August.

The mandate calls for a force of 4,000 to protect civilians, UN and humanitarian personnel, and ceasefire and peace agreement monitors. Controversially, it also calls for the force to control the airport; secure entry and egress from Juba; “disarm” government security forces who threaten civilians or protected persons; and take action in extremis in Juba or elsewhere – security tasks the government believes violate their sovereignty. That the forces are regional does not ameliorate the government’s concerns, given the region’s vested interests in South Sudan (which are not always the same as Juba’s).

Some Council members supported the mandate based on the belief that the SPLA-IO was capable of launching a large-scale attack against the capital, which it is not. After peacekeepers failed to respond to attacks on foreigners last month, many believed a stronger mission was necessary to prevent a repeat of these events. Rather, the previously Juba-based SPLA-IO forces’ destabilising presence in the Equatoria region is almost entirely unaddressed by the mandate. Many Council members who abstained were concerned about the mandate’s lack of focus on a political path forward and connection between the force and political objectives. Other diplomats and advocates questioned the utility of additional forces from regional countries that are already part of UNMISS and have a spotty record in discharging the pre-existing mandate. Senior UNMISS officials are concerned about the mission’s ability to absorb an additional 4,000 troops, as well as about the negative implications for the safety of mission staff and ability to carry out its core mandate to protect civilians.

A 5 August IGAD communiqué laid out some of the controversial tasks that were included in the mandate and called for the next step to be a meeting (which Juba believed would be a negotiation) with South Sudan and the region’s military chiefs. This meeting had not happened by 12 August and the Council, having already delayed consideration once, voted on the mandate drafted by the U.S., the regular penholder on South Sudan on the Council. The debate was contentious and, though the mandate passed, four Council members, including Russia, China, Egypt and Venezuela, abstained. The absence of consensus on the Council and Juba’s objections to the resolution call into question whether the mandate will be implemented as intended.

There is doubt as to whether a threatened arms embargo – conditions for which are spelt out in the resolution’s annex – is a realistic punitive measure. Several Council members are reluctant to impose an arms embargo, so it may not pass a vote – and, absent more unified Council support, may not be particularly effective regardless. Likewise, many non-Council members in the Horn of Africa are experts at skirting arms embargos and restrictions on arms transfers. If they are not fully committed to implementation, this could also limit an embargo’s effectiveness. There are further questions about how an effective arms embargo would impact Juba’s ability to provide border security or address internal rule of law challenges – which include rebel groups other than the SPLA-IO.

Juba has already expressed its displeasure and is likely to seek to make the peacekeeping mission’s operations even more difficult – including through limitations and delays on movement and clearances of personnel, and harassment of UN staff – as it negotiates over the new force. Routine and pre-agreed unit changeovers may be subject to delays given suspicions that the UN will use these changes to surreptitiously increase the force size.

Next Steps

At this juncture, the transitional government, with Taban as the first vice president, appears set to use a combination of carrots and sticks to implement the ARCSS – along lines far more favourable to the wartime government than originally envisioned by IGAD-PLUS. Deals on armed group integration – within or outside the parameters of ARCSS – could significantly reduce tensions between Khartoum, Juba and Kampala, break apart Machar’s fragile coalition and maintain Taban as the first vice president. Such a situation could result in stability in Juba and in many parts of the country, while leaving other areas still in conflict. Juba is unlikely to accept another mediation in an international forum as it did in 2014-2015, choosing to manage the ongoing conflict on its own, with its closest neighbours remaining deeply involved.

Discussions within IGAD, the African Union and Security Council over a regional force have sent the relationship between South Sudan and the west, particularly the U.S., into a downward spiral – benefiting no one. The government is now seeking to make clear through restrictions on the UN inside South Sudan that it is not possible to send in a 4,000-strong force without consent. Additional negotiations with the UN, IGAD and regional participants in the force are likely to continue to occupy key actors at the expense of engagement on a political resolution to the conflict. The UN should be cautious about the use of force without clear political objectives, and it should work with other IGAD-PLUS members to reassess how the ARCSS can be realistically implemented in a manner that increases stability given the shift in dynamics in-country.

Juba has succeeded in clawing back from its position a year ago when it signed the ARCSS with significant reservations. At this stage, a partially implemented agreement favouring the government and presenting no threat to Kiir’s presidency is the most likely outcome of the past month’s tumult. This would mean relative stability in Juba and much of the country, with perpetual conflicts elsewhere.

Divisions within the international community, and IGAD-PLUS in particular, are likely to inhibit the formation of an overarching political strategy to address ongoing conflict and governance challenges. Instead, the South Sudanese will seek to shape the country’s future trajectory, with regional influences – whether Juba welcomes these influences or not. Yet, a key aspect of the ARCSS is the devolution of power, some of which is still possible. IGAD-PLUS should coordinate its efforts with the transitional government to devolve power in line with the agreement’s power-sharing ratios to disaffected groups and communities who hoped to benefit from the agreement.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit (R) and opposition leader Riek Machar (L) attend a signing ceremony of agreement between South Sudanese government and armed oppositions on sharing power and security regulations in Sudan on 5 August 2018. Anadolu Agency / Mahmoud Hjaj
Statement / Africa

A Critical Six Months for 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.

On 3 May at a summit in Addis Ababa, South Sudan’s rival parties agreed to a six-month extension of the deadline to form a unity government. A consensual delay had become the best available option to salvage South Sudan’s peace deal, which has produced the first sustained ceasefire in the five-year conflict pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against an alliance led by former Vice President Riek Machar. But the next six months should not be wasted as the last eight were. The two sides need to make difficult decisions and South Sudan’s foreign partners should both encourage and pressure them to do so in order to prevent a return to war.

For the first extended period since the civil war broke out in December 2013, the news out of South Sudan is not uniformly bleak: after the parties reached a peace deal in September 2018, a nationwide ceasefire between the signatories has been holding, even though fighting continues between the government and smaller groups clustered in South Sudan’s Equatoria region who remain outside the peace deal. This is a noteworthy achievement after years of empty commitments by the parties to silence their guns. Thousands of lives have been saved. But the gain is tenuous. The agreement, brokered by the regional body IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, long chaired by Ethiopia), gave the parties eight months to complete two main tasks: unifying a national army and resolving internal boundaries. Little, if any, progress has been made on either.

By extending the deadline it avoided a riskier alternative: unilateral formation of a new government by Kiir without the main opposition party’s participation.

This lack of movement is hardly surprising, as the status quo is convenient for both sides. The government has little incentive to execute a power-sharing arrangement that, by definition, will dilute its authority. Benefitting from its military strength, it has invested few resources to help finance implementation of the accord; this extension, or even one after that, is no hardship. Riek Machar, who in theory would have every reason to return to Juba to take up the post of vice president as provided by the accord, has also been content to procrastinate; he was the one insisting on a six-month delay. He appears to view the period prior to implementation – and notably the so-called cantonment process, under which both sides’ armed groups are to be assembled as a prelude to forming a new, unified army – as an opportunity to regroup and bankroll his fighting force, which has largely demobilised after years of attrition and a lack of external support. He will also want to wait for developments in neighbouring Sudan to settle down, given the role Khartoum has played as his historic patron. Meanwhile, regional and international interest in South Sudan has drifted and waned. With neither internal momentum nor external pressure, paralysis was virtually preordained.

The peace deal’s security provisions in particular have remained a dead letter. Kiir’s army ignored provisions to demilitarise cities. There was no advance toward cantonment: Machar did not send his soldiers to camps, claiming a lack of funds, which only confirmed to wary donors that this exercise is about subsidising armed forces that someday could revert to war.

Under the circumstances, the 3 May agreement is welcome news. By extending the deadline it avoided a riskier alternative: unilateral formation of a new government by Kiir without the main opposition party’s participation. When the government opted for that approach in 2016 and replaced Machar with a senior defector from his own party, two years of widening conflict ensued. There was another positive outcome: government representatives pledged $100 million to the implementation process, which – should Kiir carry out this commitment – will help assuage external donors increasingly impatient with Juba’s unwillingness to spend any of its own money.

But for the next six months not to mimic the inaction of the past eight, several steps will be crucial:

  • Breaking the impasse over implementation, especially regarding security provisions. As Crisis Group has previously underscored, the priority is to ensure the peace process does not stall and preserve its principal achievement, the ceasefire. So far, Machar has insisted that his return, and thus the formation of a unity government, can only happen after completion of the cantonment process. But this fraught, complicated endeavour will be time-consuming; South Sudan is entering its annual rainy season, which will last for most of the next six months, making the task even more challenging. In short, a unity government preconditioned on a broader reform of the army and the integration of Machar’s disparate armed groups – many of which are likely to resist such a move – might never be formed. Likewise, Machar’s public insistence that he can only return if accompanied by a large force that includes thousands of his own fighters is a recipe for conflict: both of South Sudan’s two major eruptions of violence, in 2013 and 2016, were sparked by fighting between Kiir’s and Machar’s bodyguards.

    One possible solution, previously mooted by Crisis Group, would be for a third-party force to provide protection for Machar to enable his safe and dignified return. Machar would need to request it – which could help convince outsiders that he is serious about returning – and implementation would be a heavy lift for exhausted donors and a distracted region. But it could be the most practical way of getting the deal moving and affording time and space for the peace deal to progress without holding it hostage to wider security reform process.
  • Improving relations between the two sides. Suspicion between the two sides runs deep, and each one doubts the other’s commitment to the deal. That is unlikely to change, but some steps could be taken to mitigate the damage. To begin with, irrespective of how unpleasant for them, Kiir and Machar should agree to regular face-to-face meetings. Kiir also should quickly outlay the financial commitments he has pledged as a sign of good faith.
  • Ensure better coordination among outside actors. Several factors have combined to weaken the role of external mediators. Most significantly, the long overdue ouster from power of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has brought a diplomatic vacuum of sorts; along with Bashir went the other main broker of the peace deal, his security strongman Salah Gosh. This has both visibly rattled Machar and left the process leaderless; for as long as uncertainty reigns in Khartoum, Sudan will not be in a position to mediate between Kiir and Machar.

    There are no other obvious candidates to help guide the process. The likeliest alternative, Ethiopia, stepped up last week in Addis Ababa. But Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed’s willingness to devote the necessary energy to the task is questionable: he promptly handed the file to Sudan after he took office, preferring to focus on other critical priorities, including his own domestic transition and the peace deal with Eritrea. Ugandan President Museveni helped Bashir broker the accord, but he is closer to Kiir and enjoys little influence over Machar.

    For lack of a better alternative, the burden likely will fall on the collection of regional countries represented in IGAD as well as Western donors, led by the Troika (the U.S., UK, and Norway) and the EU. Although these countries did not engage at a senior level, they performed relatively well in the run-up to Addis Ababa, articulating the clear message to the parties that the most important goal was for them to maintain consensus on a path forward. Their message now should be equally straightforward: the priority is protecting the ceasefire, which will require the parties to seek consensus and strike common ground. There is a lesson to be learned from past attempts to force through contentious solutions: in 2016, heavy outside pressure led to Machar’s return to Juba, with over a thousand well-armed fighters. The government immediately deadlocked over key decisions on how to implement the remainder of the accord, clashes between the two sides’ respective bodyguards led to days of bloody fighting in the capital, and Machar was forced to flee hundreds of miles on foot.
For now, the focus should be on using this reprieve wisely in order to preserve the ceasefire and help South Sudan move toward a more comprehensive and longer-lasting peace.

The Horn of Africa is undergoing seismic shifts, with a historic albeit risky transition in Ethiopia, a long-sought agreement between Addis Ababa and Asmara, the fall of Bashir, and South Sudan’s peace deal. Instability in any of these areas affects them all. The decision to extend the deadline for government formation in Juba is hardly a breakthrough. It represents a palliative at best, and a temporary one at that. It addresses neither the problem of the many localised rebel groups that Machar will struggle to accommodate, nor the ongoing power struggle between him and Kiir. But it is an achievement nonetheless. For now, the focus should be on using this reprieve wisely in order to preserve the ceasefire and, step by step, help South Sudan move toward a more comprehensive and longer-lasting peace.

The peace deal in South Sudan was signed in September 2018, not December 2018, as originally said in this statement. Correction made on 8 May 2019.