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South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators
South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators
A Critical Six Months for South Sudan
A Critical Six Months for South Sudan
SPLM/A-In Opposition at the Permanent Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Workshop in Addis Ababa on 17 September 2015. CRISIS GROUP
Commentary / Africa

South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators

In the heat of the dry season, Juba waits, knowing big things are on the horizon. After two years in the bush, a handful of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) officials are back in town, though their leader, Riek Machar, and his forces are absent. Economic crisis permeates every facet of daily life, with relief in sight only if Machar returns, and a deal is made with old adversaries in Sudan. War and peace questions mix with daily survival in a capital that has tried hard to return to normal after the targeted ethnic killings of December 2013. At least 27,000 civilians still do not feel safe enough to leave camps the UN protects.

Yet, there are signs of hope. The peace agreement for South Sudan that the regional organisation the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) brokered in August 2015 is holding, though its provisions are not implemented. A transitional government and the cantonment of thousands of fighters should be in place and numerous reform processes underway, but they are not. The ceasefire is largely a success in the Greater Upper Nile crucible of the original war but under strain elsewhere, as conflict has expanded to the former Western Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal, and in the wake of violence and attacks on civilians sheltering at a UN base in Malakal on 17-18 February.

Machar, the head of the armed opposition, refuses to return to Juba to help form the government without substantive progress on the transitional security arrangements. While opposition generals negotiate around the clock with the government in Juba to make this happen, Machar is accused of sacrificing the agreement to pursue his wider political ambitions. For its part, the government has embarked on an ambitious process of establishing 28 states from ten – a move that partly drove the violence at the UN base in Malakal – while countering rebellion in the Equatorias and former Western Bahr el Ghazal.

Map of South Sudan in the region. CRISIS GROUP

Mediating without Mediators

The institutions charged with overseeing the agreement, principally the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), which reports to the IGAD Heads of State – in this case the core quartet of Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya – are in equally poor shape. JMEC’s membership is diverse, including, among others, the warring parties, civilian political opposition, IGAD member states, UN, African Union (AU), Troika (U.S., UK and Norway), and China. Its chair is the former Botswanan President Festus Moghae, whose deputy is ex-Guinean Prime Minister François Fall, both deliberately chosen from outside a region whose deep and competing equities in South Sudan continue to generate controversy, even when it comes to JMEC staffing and leadership roles.

IGAD’s failure to meet to decide contentious issues has left JMEC unable to respond when the parties create facts on the ground.

IGAD’s failure to meet to decide contentious issues has left JMEC unable to respond when the parties create facts on the ground. On 24 December, as soon as its chairman was on a flight out of Juba following the first formal JMEC meeting with both government and SPLM/A-IO, South Sudan President Salva Kiir decreed establishment of the 28 states. By the time the IGAD foreign ministers called for the creation of a boundary commission following formation of the transitional government in late January, the 28 states were a reality. New governors, state ministers and county commissioners continue to be appointed and take up their posts, and talk in Juba is more focused on the winners and losers of this process than overall peace implementation. JMEC – never designed to mediate but rather to oversee and report to the Heads of State – almost looks set up to fail.

Money, Money, Money

Even if implementation were to progress, the government’s empty coffers would struggle to meet the most basic existing requirements, let alone the additional structures the peace agreement outlines. Due to inflation, the lowest-level salaries no longer even pay civil servants for their bus fare to work. The August agreement demands creation of more than twenty new institutions, includes provision for the cantonment of tens of thousands of fighters and requires the movement of thousands of government soldiers 25km outside of Juba, among other costly provisions. At least some of the latter are political or technical additions not negotiated by the warring parties, which gives the government further grounds to deny responsibility for their financing.

Western donors – many of whom were both official witnesses to the peace agreement and South Sudan’s original patrons at independence – are reluctant to throw good money after bad.  They say they will not “reward” a government that destroyed its own nascent infrastructure and brought itself to the brink of fiscal ruin through corruption and excessive military spending. China, with less historical hang-ups, is more willing to engage within its own parameters, particularly by giving in-kind support. Its offer of tents, generators and other mobile infrastructure to support the cantonment process helped break the deadlock on transitional security arrangements and removed at least one obstacle to the agreement’s implementation.

Many Western donors feel the government is holding them and the peace deal hostage in the hope of getting cash for implementation.

As temperatures continue to rise in Juba, so do tensions. Many Western donors feel the government is holding them and the peace deal hostage in the hope of getting cash for implementation; there is near-constant brinkmanship between government and donors over small but critical matters such as payment for hotels and flights for opposition figures to return to Juba. The government argues it should not be asked to fund the SPLM/A-IO, whose chair has profited from the war.

But if the donors want peace, they will have to pay. At times their priorities look skewed. The overpriced and underperforming internationally-led Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism receives millions, while the National Architecture for the Implementation of the Permanent Ceasefire, whose effective functioning is critical to the agreement’s overall success, has no financial provision.

In fact, the government’s fiscal crisis is probably the best lever available to push for implementation, since the possibility of an international economic bail-out is directly tied to formation of the transitional government. The government is seeking to demonstrate progress to the International Monetary Fund by appointing its own members to the transitional government, while pressuring Machar to return to Juba.

The Bigger Picture

The risks facing South Sudan’s peace process are made worse by the danger of losing its regional anchor. The IGAD quartet’s domestic distractions and some minor bilateral spats have caused JMEC to flounder, with large external players  – primarily the Troika and especially the U.S. and China, the latter providing practical incentives – stepping in to keep up the momentum. Though welcome, the backstopping threatens the same fate for this agreement as the 2005 IGAD-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and the then Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which ultimately lead to South Sudan’s independence. Then the region took a backseat to the Troika and UN for much of the implementation, many of whose provisions fell by the wayside, laying the groundwork for the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile; the ongoing dispute over Abyei’s status (and a UN peacekeeping mission of its own); and the failure to meaningfully transform the leadership in Khartoum or the SPLM/A.

The current South Sudan peace agreement was a product of careful compromise by the IGAD Heads of State following months of mediation supported by the wider international community. At the outset of the war, Uganda backed Juba, and Sudan provided more muted support to the SPLM/A-IO, with greater regional confrontation a distinct possibility.

Yet, to the surprise of many, Sudanese President Omar Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni found common ground in resolution of the war and a springboard for improvement in their bilateral relations. Sudan and South Sudan ties, which deteriorated soon after independence and led to armed confrontation over Heglig, have also improved. The start of negotiations over oil fees and other outstanding issues such as the border, armed groups and Abyei, offers the prospect of stabilising the hard-won regional peace and is welcome.

Reinforcing Peace or Reverting to War

South Sudan is at a critical juncture. Decisions made in the coming weeks will determine whether the country will continue the process of pulling back from further war and economic ruin or falling back into conflict and economic crisis. Peace is required for an international bail-out, and the international community should provide this incentive. At the same time, renegotiation of oil fees with Sudan, which could mitigate some of Juba’s currency crisis, offers the prospect of peace between the two neighbours, as talks expand into major outstanding post-independence issues. With the stakes so high, IGAD needs to continue to step up its role, as more mediation than oversight is required. South Sudan has come so close to implementing the peace deal, but making it a reality requires a unified IGAD and JMEC front in the service of peace.

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.