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What are the prospects for South Sudan’s new peace agreement? Here are the critical next steps.

- October 29, 2018

It’s been a month since South Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was announced. What can research on other CPAs tell us about this one?

On Sept. 12, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and vice president turned rebel leader Riek Machar signed the CPA to end a five-year civil war. The agreement received a tepid reception from diplomats, academics and policy analysts. Kiir and Machar signed a similar CPA in 2015, but fighting resumed within months.

The new CPA may succeed — if Kiir and Machar implement its key provisions

Our research identifies 51 categories of reforms from 39 CPAs since 1989. We classified the reforms in South Sudan’s 2015 and 2018 agreements and found that 26 of the 27 reforms in the new agreement were also in the 2015 agreement. Even the commitments’ details are similar. We used text analysis to gauge the agreements’ similarity — it was 0.9 on a 0 to 1 scale, where 1 indicates identical words.

We find that when signatories carry out more of a CPA’s reforms, peace is more likely to last. When the 2015 CPA collapsed in 2016, 20 percent of its reforms had been implemented. Overall, our data show signatories complete, on average, 52 percent of a CPA’s reforms within two years.

Preserving the cease-fire and safeguards are critical next steps

In the coming months, maintaining the cease-fire and establishing “built-in safeguards” are critical. Safeguards allow signatories to discuss disputes over the peace process, reducing the likelihood that parties resort to violence.

Both of South Sudan’s agreements include two safeguards: a temporary power-sharing government and monitoring groups to oversee the implementation and cease-fire. However, by the end of 2015, these were only minimally implemented.

There have been cease-fire breakdowns already, but these appear fewer and less severe than after the 2015 CPA. Importantly, after these recent breakdowns, Kiir ordered the army to respect the cease-fire. Cease-fire violations remain limited when leaders reject, rather than justify, the use of force. In our data, 71 percent of cease-fires experience similar or worse breakdowns in their first year.

The cease-fire monitoring group met the agreement’s initial deadline to organize and began investigating the violations. However, the implementation monitoring group missed its target to hold its first meeting due to the signatories’ delay in nominating their representatives. Such delays are common.

The 2018 agreement restored the 2015 transitional power-sharing government

Kiir will remain president while Machar resumes his role as vice president. This could prove problematic. In 2015, Machar delayed returning to the capital to take office for eight months over fear for his security. Three months after finally taking office, he fled renewed fighting in the capital.

The re-formed government will not take office until 2019, but Machar recently refused to visit the capital over security concerns. However, Kiir has taken steps to begin the transition to the new government, which could help build trust between the two sides.

Political reforms, human rights and state borders are longer-term goals

Once these safeguards are in place, the parties can undertake 16 reforms from the 2018 agreement that they failed to implement in 2015. These fall into three categories: rights reforms, which address human rights and aid for 4.3 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); political reforms, covering election law and the judiciary; and security sector reforms to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate former rebels.

It is too soon to tell whether the parties will implement these reforms. Most political changes are the purview of the to-be-created government, as is aid for refugees and IDPs. Under the agreement, the new government will draft a new constitution next year, which should address some of the reforms.

Security reform was supposed to begin immediately. But neither side has started to prepare for disarmament, which they agreed to do by October 12. Disarmament still could succeed — in Colombia, whose peace process we closely monitor, the combatants missed an early disarmament deadline due to logistical issues, but eventually assembled and disarmed their forces.

And South Sudan’s new CPA addresses two issues from 2015. First, it includes provisions to prevent ethnic conflict. These outline steps to identify each ethnic group’s territory, and to use this to draw state boundaries. It also creates temporary power-sharing governments in these states. Tensions over the number, ethnic composition and leadership of these states contributed to the collapse of the 2015 agreement. If Kiir and Machar can agree on state boundaries and governments, they will have overcome a major stumbling block.

Early implementation of these important provisions is off schedule. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an organization of neighboring states, which mediated both agreements, missed a deadline to convene committees to map tribal and state borders. The new governments cannot be created until the state boundaries are drawn. However, our data show that most signatories implement similar reforms after the first year.

Second, the current peace process engaged more key stakeholders than the 2015 CPA, which focused on Kiir, Machar and their groups. In contrast, multiple opposition parties participated in the new negotiations and signed the CPA. These groups were promised representation in the power-sharing government and various oversight bodies. The monitoring groups that have been formed included representatives from these signatories.

Comparing the unique words in the 2015 and 2018 South Sudan peace agreements.
Figure by Matthew Hauenstein.

The adjustments in the 2018 agreement can be seen in its language

There’s another way to gauge the differences — we compared the word usage in both agreements. The 2018 CPA includes more discussion of boundaries and the committees drawing them (“TBC” and “IBC”). It also frequently mentions other political parties (“OPP”), such as the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (“SSOA”). This suggests Kiir and Machar may cooperate more with opposition groups than they did in 2015.

While South Sudan’s new CPA may resemble a prior failed agreement, it is not necessarily doomed. Durable peace in South Sudan depends on Kiir and Machar upholding their commitments under the CPA. The new agreement addresses some issues that undermined its predecessor, and there is some progress on important short-term reforms. This progress helps both sides bridge differences, build mutual trust and initiate long-term reforms.

Matthew Hauenstein is a postdoctoral research associate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. 

Madhav Joshi is an associate research professor and associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.