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South Sudan's warring parties agree to agree on a peace agreement

- February 5, 2015

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L) and rebel commander Riek Machar exchange documents after signing a cease-fire agreement during the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Summit on the case of South Sudan in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Feb. 1, 2015. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Since the beginning of the year, two developments have revived hope that South Sudan’s civil war, which began in December 2013, may soon come to an end. First, the country’s main political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), whose split precipitated the conflict, announced its reunification during an Intra-SPLM Dialogue hosted in Tanzania. President Salva Kiir and his former vice president and current leader of the SPLM/A-in-Opposition then signed an Agreement on the Establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity at the mediations sponsored by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). While both of these processes are necessary to address SPLM party governance and possible power-sharing arrangements, they are not yet sufficient enough to make the signing of a final peace agreement a foregone conclusion.
According to the IGAD agreement, warring parties are required to sign a final peace agreement by March. A transitional government with a tenure of 30 months is to be established no later than July 9, 2015, but will be preceded by a Pre-Transition Period that will start on April 1, 2015. Still to be negotiated are the proposed power-sharing ratios under a notional transitional government. As warring parties have exhibited blatant disregard for previous agreements in this conflict and have missed previous IGAD-imposed deadlines to create a transitional government, there is ample reason to be skeptical that recent agreements could likewise fall through.
A major concern is that the groups participating in the IGAD peace process do not represent the realities or interests of most ordinary South Sudanese, thus repeating some of the flaws of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and resulted in South Sudan’s 2011 referendum on independence from Sudan. Furthermore, the constituencies that the principal signatories to the agreement purport to represent are not monolithic. Even if Kiir and Machar were genuinely committed to peace, they would need to sell compromises in a transitional government to extremist elements within their constituencies, who may believe the war can be won militarily or may be skeptical that their standard bearers are conceding too much power to their political rivals. Kiir may face resistance within the military, whose leadership may be opposed to the continuance of the government’s amnesty and integration approach to armed groups. Machar may have trouble selling what may essentially end up as an elite political compact to military commanders on the ground, who seek revenge for the killings of their Nuer kinsmen in Juba during the initial days of the conflict, and faced unmet expectations during previous cycles of military integration. There are even doubts as to whether Machar is even capable of counteracting the mass mobilization of the Nuer White Army or wrangling opposition military commanders to comply with any future agreement, as he had previously stated that he was not in complete control over these forces. Furthermore, if a future peace agreement restores Machar to the government, but he is unable to account for the equities of these elements, they may see him as a sellout and continue the war on their own terms. If a peace deal does eventually come to pass, Machar may end up returning to the government with a meager following, echoing his return to the fold in 2002.
There is also the issue of how an IGAD agreement would address human rights abuses committed during the conflict. In order to facilitate healing and establish a record of abuses committed since the conflict broke out, a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing is to be established, per the IGAD agreement. However, addressing accountability head on will be a challenge for both Kiir and Machar. The trademark approach to armed rebellions for the former has been to issue blanket amnesties, while the opposition forces of the latter may have limited incentive to lay down their arms if they could be held accountable for abuses committed during the war. If the much-delayed release of the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan report is any indication, the issue of accountability for abuses committed during the war will likewise also be buried due to concerns that it could exacerbate, not resolve, conflict. A quote from South Sudanese scholar Jok Madut Jok during the early days of the crisis may, unfortunately, be appropriate – “The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for.”
Outside of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states, where most of the fighting has taken place, there is a question of how recent developments in Addis might affect the potential for conflict across Greater Equatoria. The three Equatorian states, which have so far remained on the side of the government during the current conflict, could decide that an agreement between Kiir and Machar leaves them on the sidelines. This would especially be the case if current proposals for Machar to return to the government as a First Vice President could lead to the Equatorian incumbent, James Wani Igga, being demoted to Second Vice President. During the current conflict, there have already been indications of tension between Juba and the Equatorias, brought to the fore by recent calls on the part of Equatorian governors for the adoption of federalism to devolve certain powers from the national government. There has also been rampant speculation regarding the alleged defection of SPLA officers in the region and emergence of anti-government armed groups. With the country’s capital located in Central Equatoria and a raging war in the Greater Upper Nile region, the government is wary of a new battlefront opening up on its flank. Accordingly, Kiir will need to balance between maintaining the loyalty of his political power base, appeasing the armed opposition in Greater Upper Nile, and maintaining the tolerance of the Equatorians.
After months of stalemate and halting peace negotiations, recent developments in South Sudan’s peace process offer as much cause for optimism as they do for concern. Even in the days since the IGAD agreement was signed, there have been reports of clashes in Unity state, the announcement of an opposition military recruitment drive, and an extension of the deployment of pro-government Ugandan troops in South Sudan. While it is entirely possible that warring parties may be militarily strengthening their positions in order to extract additional concessions during ongoing power-sharing negotiations, it is also possible that these are just further indications of how far South Sudan has to go to accomplish a final peace agreement. Thus, a Kiir-Machar political compact brokered in Addis and Arusha may not necessarily translate into peace on the ground, and recent developments should in no way be interpreted as an end to South Sudan’s civil war.
Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa political-military analyst and a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She blogs at Lesley on Africa, and you can follow her on Twitter.