Five years into South Sudan’s civil war, the main belligerents have once again agreed to stop fighting and form a unity government. But the set of agreements, finalised on 12 September 2018, two years after the last accord collapsed, does not end the country’s deep crisis. It neither resolves the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and erstwhile rebel leader Riek Machar nor outlines a final political settlement for the country. Rather, it establishes a wobbly Kiir-Machar truce and grafts it onto the previous failed peace terms, without delivering much benefit to other groups that have been shut out of power. The new deal has lessened fighting, a welcome outcome, but it could break down over any number of outstanding disputes. Diplomats should handle the truce with care, nurturing momentum toward peace while pressing urgently for a more lasting settlement.
The accord, brokered by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, is not a finished product and requires revision, a reality that mediators are not yet ready to admit. Additional political deals are necessary on two crucial matters – unifying a national army and resolving bitter disagreements over local boundaries and administration inside South Sudan. Absent such deals, the Kiir-Machar truce may fail its first major test in May 2019, when the two South Sudanese leaders are scheduled to form a unity government.
Most worrying at present, Kiir and Machar are still negotiating shared security control of the capital Juba, the scenario which led to the bloody setback in 2016. This prospect is a powerful argument for delaying the unity government’s formation past May, to grant mediators time to organise a small, limited-mandate third-party protection force for opposition leaders, the least objectionable of bad options for Juba’s security arrangements. The parties should come to consensus on whether to move back the May deadline. They should also remain open to supplemental negotiations with those opposition leaders commanding large forces who have rejected the peace deal.
The accord’s flaws should be a call to international action; instead, diplomatic apathy prevails. Western diplomats, whose countries have paid billions to feed and care for South Sudan’s beleaguered civilian population, have failed to keep up with the rapid pace of events. The U.S. in particular appears to have abdicated its leading role in South Sudan diplomacy; outside of other Horn of Africa states, no country has stepped up to assume the mantle. The absence of diplomatic leadership is baffling. A more proactive posture is urgently needed.
To shore up the truce, and avert a return to large-scale violence, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional bloc overseeing the deal, as well as the African Union (AU), the UN and donors, especially the U.S. and allies, should step up and sustain their diplomacy. In particular, they should:
- Urge Kiir and Machar to strike new political deals on security and boundaries so that these provisions do not derail the rest of the accord. Push the parties as well to reach agreement on whether to postpone formation of the unity government now slated for May. Far more important than which route to take – delay or no delay – is maintaining consensus between the two main parties.
Propose – and strongly push both sides to accept – a third-party protection force for opposition leaders to prevent Juba’s remilitarisation by competing armed parties. Opposition fighters should not deploy to the capital in significant numbers, not even as part of a “unified” national force.
Begin a new mediation track for Thomas Cirillo, a former deputy army chief who now leads rebels in the Equatoria region opposed to the peace deal, which should be open to amendment. The government should halt its ill-advised military offensive against Cirillo’s forces, and both sides should recommit to the December 2017 cessation of hostilities.
Fill the diplomatic vacuum created by Washington’s retrenchment by empowering a lead envoy with donor backing to conduct shuttle diplomacy between the regional capitals. The simplest path forward would be to appoint a U.S. envoy to reassume leadership of the Troika countries (the U.S., the UK and Norway) in close coordination with the EU and other donors. This envoy should focus on sustaining regional pressure on the parties and fostering a longer-term strategy for addressing South Sudan’s systemic political instability.
Regional leaders, under IGAD’s auspices, should speedily appoint a new head of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), the body tasked with overseeing the parties’ implementation of the agreement. They should pick a figure who commands the key belligerents’ respect and who, when necessary, can marshal regional governments to intervene to broker deals and constrain saboteurs. Donors should condition financial support for JMEC activities upon the appointment of a full chair.
For the first time since war broke out, Kiir’s forces have ceased fighting Machar’s. But this breakthrough is fragile, and the possible triggers of fresh combat are many. Diplomats should move ahead along two tracks. They should pursue a deeper political settlement, one that addresses the reasons why South Sudan seems trapped in perpetual conflict; but they should do so while muddling through the rollout of a peace agreement that many South Sudanese, including the parties who negotiated it, fear is doomed to fail.
Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 13 March 2019