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South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias
South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias
Bolstering South Sudan’s Peace Deal
Bolstering South Sudan’s Peace Deal
Table of Contents
    1. Stepping up European Diplomacy
South Sudanese SPLA soldiers inspect a burned out car in Pageri in Eastern Equatoria state, 20 August 2015. AFP PHOTO/Samir Bol
Report 236 / Africa

South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias

The 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan reached a milestone with the formation of a transitional government in Juba in April. Yet fault lines like those in the Equatorias remain outstanding. A committed, inclusive political response is vital to stop low-level conflicts continuing indefinitely.

Executive Summary

The formation of a transitional government following Riek Machar’s return to Juba in April marked the most significant milestone of the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) that ended the twenty-month civil war. Yet the ARCSS, designed to address a war primarily fought between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) in the Greater Upper Nile region, is an imperfect solution to other conflict fault lines, notably in the Equatoria region. Conflicts there are driven by a combination of national governance issues – federalism, security sector reform and a new constitution – that the ARCSS addresses – and localised grievances. Though the Equatorian conflicts appear to be on the wane, the agreement’s ability to address national political and security governance issues as well as regional-specific questions about the status of Equatorian opposition forces will determine if they revive.

Conflicts in the Equatorias, particularly in the west, intensified following the ARCSS signing, leading to persistent violence and displacing more than 100,000 people in eight of the region’s 23 original counties. The SPLA-IO capitalised on mounting grievances with a deliberate policy of support and incitement to rebellion, helping turn localised violence into low-level armed combat. This prompted retaliation from Juba that further escalated the situations. 

At its core, the multiple Equatorian conflicts are based on political differences and unresolved grievances between the national government and some local communities, not between the government and SPLM/A-IO. Many Equatorians believe the government and its army (the SPLA) serve a single ethnic group, the Dinka (who are cattle keepers, government officials, businesspeople and soldiers throughout much of the region); many Dinka believe they bore the greatest burdens of the independence struggle, including famine and the depredation produced by raids on their communities, while areas such as Western Equatoria were largely spared. Nevertheless, most Equatorians are not rebelling against the government, and where there is fighting, different armed groups have their own casus belli

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”. In 2015, Equatorian governors presented an independent position to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, the regional organisation). The September 2015 sacking and subsequent detention by President Salva Kiir of the popular elected Governor Joseph Bangasi Bakosoro, the strengthening of relations between Dinka cattle keepers and the SPLA against the agricultural majority and the harsh suppression of local rebellions are seen as consequences of Equatorian “neutrality”. 

Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

Most Equatorians want the bloodshed to end; they do not want to fight the government or anyone else. Formation of the transitional government in Juba has furthered the move toward peace; Equatorians are well-represented in it, leading two of the three security ministries, and Bakosoro has been released. The tools to end conflict in the Equatorias are available, within the August peace deal and through church-led local peace efforts in conflict-affected communities. 

The process to draft a permanent constitution, based on the principle of a federal system and with an Equatorian, Dr Richard K. Mulla, in a key position as federal affairs minister in the transitional government, gives Equatorians opportunities to present their federalism positions. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will make recommendations about ethnic composition of the security sector, its structure and counter-insurgency responsibilities and approaches within an overall security policy framework. Beyond ARCSS processes, reconciliation between agricultural and pastoral communities, supported by a balanced approach from Juba, is necessary to prevent further violence and enable implementation of the agreement. Without a determined commitment by political leaders to peace, not war, however, such efforts will fail, and low-level conflicts could continue indefinitely.


To build sustainable peace in the Equatorias

To the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU): 

  1. Ensure full implementation of the permanent ceasefire in the Equatorias.
  2. Resolve eligibility criteria for cantonment, specifically in the Equatorias and Bahr el Ghazal.
  3. Take steps to repair trust and badly damaged relationships with certain Western Equatorian politicians, building on ex-Governor Bakosoro’s release. 
  4. Address the escalation in pastoralist-farmer conflict by:
    1. implementing the presidential decree ordering cattle keepers to leave parts of the Equatorias; 
    2. providing impartial support for existing community-based structures used to negotiate cattle migration; and
    3. seeking to resolve conflicts in neighbouring states, such as Lakes and Jonglei, that drive cattle keepers from their homes in greater numbers.

To the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism:

  1. Investigate reported violations in the Equatorias, including military resupply of forces, in a timely fashion, paying special attention to the precise relationship between different Equatorian forces and the SPLM/A-IO.

To the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) and diplomatic community:

  1. Prioritise the following to stop conflicts in the Equatorias:
    1. support for the TGoNU in resolving eligibility criteria for cantonment in the Equatorias and Bahr el Ghazal; 
    2. formation and funding of the National Architecture for the Permanent Ceasefire and Unification of Forces to ensure implementation of the permanent ceasefire and oversee forces in cantonment; and
    3. making clear to the warring parties that continuing conflicts in the Equatorias would be a serious ceasefire breach.
  2. Ensure that Equatorian perspectives are given due weight during constitution drafting, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and other political processes.

To the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) Board: 

  1. Consider, in the context of its effort to create a new security policy framework and defence policy, the problematic nature of insurgency and current counter-insurgency policy.

To South Sudan’s church leaders: 

  1. Facilitate local peace agreements as and when appropriate between the TGoNU, armed groups and armed youth, local communities and cattle keepers.

To avoid further humanitarian crisis

To armed actors:

  1. Provide security guarantees for humanitarian actors to access and serve displaced populations transparently and impartially.

To humanitarian agencies:

  1. Maintain impartiality and transparency in accessing and serving displaced populations.
  2. Ensure adequate staffing and effective risk management strategies are in place, so that, when humanitarian access is secured, agencies can deliver necessary services to populations where they are located, and those populations can feel comfortable accessing the assistance.

To the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS):

  1. Accept and assist civilians fleeing active armed conflict and seeking protection inside UNMISS bases.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 25 May 2016

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.