Can South Sudan’s Leaders Get Peace Right the Second Time?

From: Berhane Habtemariam <>
Date: Sat, 19 Sep 2015 12:14:36 +0200

Andrew Green

Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015
South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar speaks to the media about the situation in South Sudan, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aug. 31, 2015 (AP photo by Mulugeta Ayene).

When South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, inked a new agreement in late August to end his country’s 20-month conflict, he seemed to be following a pattern the two warring sides had set in reaching or recommitting to an earlier deal to cease hostilities: Temporarily stave off international and regional pressure by signing, then allow it to collapse under the weight of continued fighting. True to form, clashes have continued into September, with each side accusing the other of attacks.

So far, however, neither camp has yet declared the latest deal a failure. And the leaders, though critical of some elements of the agreement, are still following through on their obligations, signaling that this time might be different.

South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil conflict since mid-December 2013, when fighting broke out in a military barracks in the capital, Juba, and then spread rapidly throughout the city. Kiir charged his former deputy, Riek Machar, with attempting a coup. The accusation was the culmination of months of growing tensions between the two. Machar had been angling for Kiir’s job, which led to his firing in July 2013. In the days before the barracks battle, Machar had accused his former boss of possessing “dictatorial tendencies.”

While he denied the coup charge, Machar quickly assumed control of the rebellion, which has centered in the country’s northeast, near Sudan, from which South Sudan declared its independence four years ago. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and at least 2 million more have been displaced from their homes in the fighting. Each side has been accused of ethnically motivated atrocities, including rape, torture and targeted killings of civilians.

The international community rushed to intervene, with an eight-country regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), taking the lead on negotiations. Within weeks of the outbreak of violence, which some observers have called a civil war, the two sides had brokered a cessation of hostilities agreement. It fell apart quickly. It has since been resurrected repeatedly and collapsed each time, sometimes lasting mere hours. International sanctions—the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have all ordered asset freezes and travel bans against military leaders on both sides—have so far proven ineffective.

In July, IGAD, in a collaboration with regional and international partners—including the African Union, the U.N., the EU, China, the U.S., the U.K. and Norway—that has been dubbed IGAD-plus, introduced a new peace plan. Culled from proposals submitted by the warring parties, as well as other religious, political and civil society actors, the agreement called for an immediate cease-fire, followed by the introduction of a 30-month inclusive, transitional government. It also mandated the creation of a commission for truth, reconciliation and healing—to the relief of religious leaders—and a hybrid court to investigate and try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, which has been applauded by international human rights activists.

Machar met the Aug. 17 signing deadline, but Kiir initially refused. He then reconsidered, under threat of an arms embargo and additional sanctions and, more importantly, increased pressure from regional leaders, particularly Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has sent forces to help backstop the South Sudanese leader. Kiir finally signed on Aug. 26, but only after appending a 12-page list of reservations to the deal. The amendments were Kiir’s attempt to pacify the hardliners in his administration who will settle at nothing less than outright military victory over the rebels—and who have managed to upend previous deals.

That, in combination with fighting that has extended beyond the mandated cease-fire deadline, looked likely to sink the agreement. However, both sides are still publicly expressing a commitment to make it work. Despite his public trepidation, Kiir has not succumbed to internal dissent and has even chastised his military leaders who have violated the cease-fire. And though the U.N. has confirmed that government helicopters have fired rockets into rebel positions, Machar and his forces have not pulled out of the deal. For its part, IGAD is treating the agreement as ironclad and said any violations will be handled within its framework.

Even if they can overcome the ongoing fighting, dozens of potential hurdles stand in the way of the deal’s implementation, beginning with the issues Kiir laid out ahead of signing the document. Those include concerns about mandated troop withdrawals, the authority bestowed on an international Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission and the division of political positions in the transitional body between the two sides. The agreement gives the rebels 10 of the 30 ministerial positions in government, 50 seats in the National Legislative Assembly and the governorships of oil-rich Unity and Upper Nile states. Kiir will retain control of the government, and Machar will almost certainly take over the newly created position of first vice president. (The rebels have said they have their own reservations with the agreement, but have yet to outline them publicly.)

Instead of taking an inflexible position as they have before, both sides have expressed a willingness to negotiate their concerns with IGAD’s help. Religious leaders, an important constituency, have encouraged both sides to pursue this tack. In a joint letter, the heads of the South Sudan Council of Churches wrote that any deal that included an immediate cease-fire was worth pursuing. They also acknowledged that “this agreement is not in itself a solution but it is a mechanism by which a solution can be reached.”

What might be working most in the IGAD-plus deal’s favor, however, is the same thing that has earned it significant criticism: It does nothing to address the political crisis that spawned the conflict. That has allowed the peace process to avoid getting bogged down in recriminations. But in sidestepping that flashpoint, IGAD-plus is effectively reconstructing a government that, in South Sudan’s first two years of independence, allowed a culture of corruption to flourish, while refusing to inculcate a national identity for a nascent state. Both failures help explain the speed at which the situation deteriorated after the initial shots were fired in Juba.

IGAD-plus is not interested in solving those problems, though, instead focusing on creating a postconflict environment where the country’s leaders can do so themselves. Or, as the agreement puts it, where they can implement “institutional and structural reforms to ensure effective governance in the Republic of South Sudan, during the Transition, and thereafter.” It will be up to South Sudan’s leadership to get it right the second time.

Andrew Green is a foreign correspondent based in East Africa. He writes often from the region on issues of health, human rights and politics, and his work has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New Republic and The Washington Post, among other outlets. You can view more of his reporting at

Received on Sat Sep 19 2015 - 06:14:37 EDT

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