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South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
A Major Step Toward Ending South Sudan’s Civil War
A Major Step Toward Ending South Sudan’s Civil War
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 Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L), South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar (R) and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (C)"Hemeti" hold hands together as they speak to media after their peace talk at the State House in Juba, South Sudan. AFP/Majak Kuany
Statement / Africa

A Major Step Toward Ending South Sudan’s Civil War

After months of delays and deadlock, bitter rivals Salva Kiir and Riek Machar finally clinched an agreement to form a unity government in South Sudan. Regional leaders must now maintain pressure on both men and other conflict parties to keep the fragile deal on track.

On 22 February, Riek Machar and other opposition leaders were sworn in as vice presidents in a new South Sudan unity government. This step came as part of a deal aimed at ending six years of conflict. President Salva Kiir declared the war officially over and asked for forgiveness from his long-time archrival, Machar, who in turn pledged to work in partnership with Kiir. The unity government’s formation, delayed twice over the last nine months amid political deadlock, is a major advance that gives the country’s leaders a chance to build upon a ceasefire between Kiir’s forces and Machar’s that has largely held for over a year. While the news is encouraging, South Sudan is hardly out of the woods. Kiir and Machar – whose past attempts to share power have foundered – will now need to work in concert to unify the national army, resolve disputes over control of key cities and make peace with holdout rebel groups. Continued pressure from regional leaders who played a key role in pushing the two leaders to strike a bargain will almost certainly be critical to the new arrangement’s success.

The deal came not a moment too soon. The fragile ceasefire dating back to the September 2018 accord that lays out a peace framework might well have started to unwind had the parties not reached a deal by the 22 February deadline they set for themselves. A return to fighting would have been devastating for a population that is exhausted by war and a country that lies shattered. Even a year after the two main belligerents stopped fighting, major towns are in ruins, emptied of most of their inhabitants. Ghost neighbourhoods stretch on and on in settlements across the country, the homes stripped of roofs and walls caved in. Up to 400,000 may have died in the conflict that started in December 2013, a staggering number in any country, but especially in one of only twelve million. Millions more were displaced. Bringing the South Sudanese people together will require the work of generations, but the first task is to preserve the new government’s unity.

Kiir and Machar have for years been, and may always remain, bitter political rivals.

That will be no small task. Kiir and Machar have for years been, and may always remain, bitter political rivals. Each is under pressure from hardliners in his camp to extract as much benefit as he can from the new government. The resulting wrangling could throw their respective forces back into conflict. Yet there are also reasons to believe that progress is possible. Both have shown more commitment to the peace process than in the past. That the ceasefire held as long as it did is encouraging, as are the compromises the two rivals reached to enable the 22 February swearing-in ceremony.

One major sticking point that required compromise concerned the number and demarcation of states within South Sudan, which has major consequences for the distribution of power across the country. During the war, largely in an attempt to appease demands from within his Dinka ethnic group, the country’s largest, Kiir had redrawn the boundaries to create first 28 and then 32 states. In order to reach a deal, he agreed to revert largely to the country’s pre-war internal boundaries, demarcating ten states and creating three “administrative areas”, one of them new. Kiir’s change of mind required him to fire 32 governors and reverse some of his most hotly contested gerrymandering.

To be sure, Kiir made this concession only under high-level pressure from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional bloc mediating the peace deal, and, the man who by some accounts is his strongest ally, President Yoweri Museveni of neighbouring Uganda. But that does not diminish the magnitude of the concession or its significance to the peace process. It succeeded in breaking the deadlock, giving Machar the political space to return to the capital Juba without losing grip of his factious coalition, some of whose members had threatened to keep fighting if Kiir’s wartime state boundaries stayed unchanged.

A second hurdle was finding a responsible answer to the sticky question of Machar’s personal security in Juba. Crisis Group had previously warned that Machar should not bring his own forces into the capital, as he did in 2016, when the two men last tried to form a unity government under the terms of an earlier peace agreement. On that occasion, his forces clashed with Kiir’s amid political disagreements, scuttling the peace deal and reigniting the war. In the present context, Machar asked Kiir to allow UN peacekeepers to provide security in Juba. Kiir refused, but regional and international pressure on Machar to compromise following Kiir’s concession on state demarcation was successful. Machar returned to Juba without his own security force, relying on Kiir’s personal guarantee for his safety, at least for the time being. It was a bold move for Machar given that twice, in 2013 and again in 2016, Kiir’s forces have chased him out of the capital.

With those two contentious issues out of the way, the parties were able to close the deal by 22 February even though they left other major sticking points – including how to speed up the lagging unification of troops loyal to Kiir or to Machar in a single army – to be addressed as the new government moves into action to cement the peace. Although the two leaders will no doubt be focused for days, weeks or even longer on horse trading over who should occupy government positions and influential governorships under the peace deal’s power-sharing formula, they cannot afford to put aside these substantive matters for long.

Managing the many armed groups across the country is a particularly pressing concern.

Managing the many armed groups across the country is a particularly pressing concern. The promised army reform is a huge challenge, the first phase alone meant to bring together 83,000 troops. While the process of melding the erstwhile antagonists into a single force will likely last for years, fighters will be watching closely in the short term for signs of progress. Thousands of Machar’s troops have already amassed at designated training sites near Juba and elsewhere in anticipation of unification, but they are also a reminder of how quickly peace could unravel if Kiir and Machar do not keep their competition in check. Also sobering is that rival rebel commanders have refused to assemble together and that both sides have embarked on new recruitment drives to inflate their respective ranks. In order to create needed momentum for unification, the forces already at joint training sites should proceed to graduation and unified deployment so that sceptics, particularly in the opposition forces, do not lose faith in the process.

The unity government will also need to work with the new governors being installed to address long-simmering conflicts that predate this civil war, particularly over control and inclusive governance of two major cities, Wau and Malakal. The government will also need to reach peace deals with insurgencies that did not sign the 2018 agreement, particularly Equatorian rebels led by Thomas Cirillo, and maintain the ceasefire reached with Cirillo and other holdout parties in January. Encouragingly, the government has committed to proceeding with political negotiations with these groups in the Rome peace track, mediated by the Sant’Egidio community.

The regional powers that pushed Kiir and Machar to make the compromises enabling the 22 February deal likewise cannot rest. History has shown that only pressure from South Sudan’s neighbours can compel its two top leaders to make major concessions. Certainly, that was the case in the run-up to 22 February. Two weeks earlier, IGAD met in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of the African Union (AU) summit, as the two warring leaders remained locked in their positions. Museveni, along with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, reportedly pushed Kiir to return to the pre-war state demarcation of ten states. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the AU’s C5 countries mandated to support the South Sudanese peace process, also conducted his own shuttle diplomacy in Addis Ababa following the months of mediation efforts by his deputy, David Mabuza, on the dispute over states. The Kenyan special envoy, Kalonzo Musyoka, reinforced these efforts. It worked. Now, their collective attention and effort will be needed to help the unity government get on its feet and prevent any future fallout between Kiir and Machar from derailing South Sudan’s journey back from war.

Donors also have a role to play. Top donor countries, including the Troika of the U.S., UK and Norway, as well as the EU and others, applied important diplomatic pressure in the run-up to last week’s compromises. Escalating U.S. sanctions on Kiir’s government and threats to levy more on both sides added to the pressure. Continued unity of purpose among donors, in both the carrots they offer and the sticks they wield, will be key to pushing Kiir and Machar to keep their commitments to peace.

Church leaders, global and local, should lobby South Sudanese and regional leaders publicly and privately to keep the peace accord on track.

Meanwhile, church leaders, global and local, should lobby South Sudanese and regional leaders publicly and privately to keep the peace accord on track, as they did before the unity government was formed. Vatican City could have a particularly important part to play. Kiir continues to refer to his April 2019 visit to the Vatican, where in a striking gesture, Pope Francis knelt on the ground and kissed his and his rival’s feet. The president now hopes for a papal visit to South Sudan to commemorate the country’s move toward peace.

Many South Sudanese reasonably doubt that Kiir and Machar can ever work together. With elections looming in three years, and Machar planning to challenge Kiir for the presidency, the relationship will remain fraught. Still, there are grounds for some cautious optimism. Fatigued by the long war, many South Sudanese fervently wish to put the years of bloody conflict behind them once and for all. The parties have thus far avoided repeating some of the mistakes of the past – such as dividing Juba between duelling security forces. Moreover, although it took substantial external pressure to arrive at this point, the magnitude of the compromises they have made suggest that both Kiir and Machar are more willing participants in this unity government than in the last failed one. The two long-time belligerents will now have to make a habit of the kinds of concessions that made last weekend’s deal possible, striking the bargains that are necessary to keep the fragile unification process on track and to allow their young country to end the brutal war that has already gone on far too long.