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South Sudan's leaders just signed a peace deal. Will it work?

- August 27, 2015

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (right) is congratulated by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn after signing a peace agreement in South Sudan’s capital Juba on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (Reuters/Jok Solomun)
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement on Wednesday, offering a much-needed glimmer of hope in the brutal civil war that has plagued his country for the past 20 months.
But an agreement does not instantly translate to peace. The situation remains dynamic and implementation of the agreement will be a herculean task.
Thinking about how likely it is this agreement, 75 pages in all, will bring peace, I immediately went back to V. Page Fortna’s seminal article on the value of peace agreements. While Fortna examined wars between states, the resonance with the South Sudan civil war is troubling. Fortna argues that well-structured peace agreements can contribute to durable peace. However, there are certain base conditions that render situations more likely to see a return to violence. Unfortunately in South Sudan we see many of these characteristics – no clear armed victory, a long history of hostility between the competing factions, and the existence of at least one of the parties at stake.
So, against these odds, what needs to happen to capitalize on this forward momentum to help South Sudan move toward peace in a positive direction? An elite compromise is necessary, to be sure. But that is not sufficient.
There are myriad of obvious security and governance issues. How will Kiir and the leader of the opposition forces, Riek Machar, actually cooperate in the transition period as president and first vice president? How do you have a successful disarmament, demobilization and reintegration and create a new national army when arms are rampant and suspicion so high? What will happen to the more than 2 million internally displaced persons and refugees who may not feel safe enough to return?
But beyond these immediate questions, additional matters deserve equal attention.
To start, South Sudan desperately needs to see a real effort to bring about justice, reconciliation and accountability. Both parties have committed horrible atrocities. These actions reinforced existing divisions, heightened the grave mistrust between communities and traumatized countless individuals.
On the justice end of that spectrum, the IGAD+ (Intergovernmental Authority on Development Plus Heads of State Summit) agreement calls for the creation of a Hybrid Court for South Sudan – something that the international community has pushed for and the U.S. government promised $5 million to bankroll.
But a hybrid of what?
Hybrid courts are meant to combine international law with existing domestic judicial systems. Here’s the thing, though – most South Sudanese do not interact with the formal South Sudanese judiciary. Instead customary law is the primary form of justice practiced throughout the country. And those customs are diverse, varying by region, tribe, and their relationship to formal legal statues.
The IGAD+ agreement stipulates that the international half of the hybrid court will be seated in the African Union (not exactly a body known for its love of international humanitarian law) with the majority of judges to be appointed from other African nations. But there is no mention of the domestic half of the so-called hybrid court.
A hybrid-court can’t work the miracles of offering the best of international law with the legitimacy of domestic practice without a real consideration of what justice and accountability means to the South Sudanese people. With all the signatures now on the agreement, a very fast clock is ticking to identify what those relevant practices are, how to integrate them into the hybrid court, and what implications they carry for the less talked about — but equally important — Compensation and Reparation Authority.
Where justice mechanisms are explicitly mentioned in the peace agreement, another critical issue for sustainable peace is the deteriorating South Sudanese economy. It’s quite possible that South Sudan literally cannot pay the costs of peace.
As longtime Sudan and South Sudan scholar Alex de Waal deftly explains, South Sudan’s government is a kleptocracy where political power is literally traded in an economic market.
The brief period of relative peace between the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and December 2013 was not won through improved democratic principals; It was bought. Rebel-leaders-turned-politicians used state funds to both fill their personal accounts and buy loyalty from potential political competitors.
The government has, until the recent conflict, been able to do this by tapping into the country’s most profitable, and practically exclusive, sources of income: oil and international aid. Lax transparency in fiscal accountability allowed these practices to continue unabated.
But since 2012 the South Sudanese economy has rapidly declined. The South Sudanese Pound (SSP) has gone from selling approximately 5 SSP to 1 U.S. dollar on the black market to fluctuating between 9-15 SSP to the dollar – all while the official bank rate was held at approximately 3 SSP to $1. This has led to a drastic shortage of foreign currency in South Sudan, benefiting the most elite, and hurting the public.
In terms of future income, while it is not clear how much oil- related debt the government is in, experts generally agree that the current oil concessions have passed their peak and the government will no longer be able to extract the same amount profits as they have previously. There have also been reports of significant damage to the physical infrastructure of oil fields as a result of the war.
Given what we know about the likelihood of spoilers emerging around peace agreements, and the already clear rifts within both the government and opposition camps, it is highly probable that some factions may want to keep on fighting. To prevent further violence in the transition period either the government will need the money to continue to buy off these competitors, which means not implementing the accountability and transparency measures outlined in the IGAD+ agreement, or the literal incentive structures of rebellion must be changed.
Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.