There seems to be an unending conflict in South Sudan which has claimed and displaced millions of lives. We examine the protracted civil war in South Sudan and consider it in light of recent peace efforts in the country.
When South Sudan seceded in 2011, the country sought to put the 40-year conflict that bedevilled their union with Sudan behind them. The conflict which claimed about 2.5 million lives and displaced over 4.5 million others ended with the prime expression of the right to self-determination, independence.
With post-colonial African history as a guide, South Sudan had every opportunity to avoid the fate of several sub-Saharan states and leverage the country’s considerable oil reserves to bring economic, social and especially political development to its citizens.
However, having failed to avoid the conflicts that threaten the Horn of Africa, the realities of post-independence is strikingly dissimilar from the expectations of the young nation. Sadly, the nation has been in a state of persistent conflict following their independence.
The humanitarian crisis triggered by the unending conflict has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has slowed down peace efforts, rendering the country vulnerable to floods, food shortages and grim economic fortunes. We examine the protracted civil war in South Sudan and consider it on the back of recent peace efforts in the country.
South Sudan’s Conflict Situation
The Civil War has persisted through various peace and cease-fire agreements and over the past six years, has claimed about 400, 000 lives and caused the displacement of millions. Its root causes are difficult to ascertain as the country itself was birthed in conflict. However, a common narrative frames the civil war as an ethnoreligious one as the key belligerents, President Salva Kiir and his opposition Vice-President Dr Riek Machar are from the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and Nuer respectively.
The history of ethnic violence between the Dinka and the Nuer goes beyond the civil war and the formation of the country. It is therefore not surprising that the civil war has witnessed various assaults targeted at members of the opposing ethnic group with continuous land conflict in the Upper Nile maintaining volatile ethnic tensions. However, this narrative is parsimonious and ignores other causes of the conflict.
Indeed, the allegiance of the armed forces in the country is primarily split between the belligerents hence loyalty to the state is ancillary.
Political differences and a power tussle for resource control is one of such causes. From the struggle for political positions to the seeming marginalisation of certain ethnic groups within the state, leadership in South Sudan has always been volatile. Before independence, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (now South Sudan People's Defence Forces (SSPDF)) had several internal political issues which led to the defection of Dr Machar in the 1990s and the creation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA-Nasir) splinter faction.
Though Dr. Machar was readmitted during the transition period between 2005 and 2011, this did not dispel the political tension that existed between himself and Dinka members of the SSPDF. Following accusations of the theft of $4 billion in state funds by President Kiir in 2012, Dr Machar and several disgruntled government officials were removed from office by the President. This was the trigger of the conflict which metamorphosed into the current civil war.
Alternatively, the enduring conflict may be attributed to the “military aristocracy” in South Sudan, which has seen the steady transfer of resources from the general public to military authorities. Senior military leaders have participated in nefarious practices to further establish themselves and obtain allegiance from lower-ranking officers, thereby establishing a lower stratum of followers. Indeed, the allegiance of the armed forces in the country is primarily split between the belligerents hence loyalty to the state is ancillary.
The existence of a military aristocracy means there is no social contract, rather it is a system of loyalty built on the cusp of military strength. The loop seems to be beneficial: military resistance will finally be called to the negotiating table to discuss power-sharing agreements disguised as attempts at resolving the conflict. Thence, there has been a series of power-sharing agreements with the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) being the most recent.
The R-ARCSS was signed in 2018 after the short-lived Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) of 2015 ended with resumed armed conflict a year after.
The (R-ARCSS) was signed by the government of South Sudan, under the leadership of President Salva Kiir; the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), under Riek Machar; and other opposing parties. The agreement has two phases; the Pre-Transitional Phase and the Implementation phase; and provides for a three-year period of a Transnational Government of National Unity (TGoNU) to precede national elections.
The transitional government is meant to have 5 vice-presidents with 35 cabinet ministers; 20 appointed by President Kiir, 9 by Machar, and six appointed by other parties. The agreement covers support infrastructure for a ceasefire in the country, adopts provisions to ensure humanitarian assistance, spells out ways for the management of economic and financial resources and allows for the creation of a permanent constitution for the country. Importantly, the agreement provides for the unification of the armies of the conflicting parties into a unified force.
However, as earlier mentioned, this is not the first agreement aiming to push the warring parties to peace. Hence, it is important to determine whether R-ARCSS can usher in a regime of peace and prevent any further armed conflict in the country.
R-ARCSS: A Glimmer of Hope
The R-ARCSS and the success of TGoNU as yet presents a glimmer of hope to the South Sudanese people. Arguably, the R-ARCSS learns from the failure of the previous agreement by involving a lot of the opposing parties to reach the agreement. Hence, reports suggest that the security situation in the country has significantly improved since the signing of the agreement.
The agreement has been lauded by certain parties, stating that the deal has “moved the country further along the road to sustainable peace”. Movement between cities is now comparatively secure in most of South Sudan, with fewer shootings at night, an improvement in the amount and variety of goods on the streets, the free flow of fighters without prompting infighting, and moves for cultural renewal.
These developments are specifically credited by people to 'handshake moments' between President Kiir and opposition leader Machar. Furthermore, key entities in facilitating the signing of this deal, the Sudanese and the Ugandan Governments appear willing to push for peace. Encouragingly, the United States has not committed any missteps which may sound the death knell to the present transitional government.
The South Sudan government also appear committed to the pursuit of peace with President Kiir conceding his position and reverting the states to 10 from the 32 states he created in 2017 to facilitate the formation of the TGoNU. Thus, while the R-ARCSS has faced considerable challenges in its implementation, it is impossible to deny that the agreement gives hope to the South Sudanese faithful who covet peace and security above all else right now.
R-ARCSS: A Fragile Peace Agreement
Relieving the top-level confrontation, symbolized by the signature "handshake" moment between President Kiir and Dr Machar, does not resolve the whole complexities of conflict at work in South Sudan. Various parties have questioned the viability of the peace agreement ever since its signing, with President Kiir himself remarking that the country has become a field for experiments. The hope presented by the R-ARCSS does not deny the fact that the agreement is fragile.
A principal cause of concern is that the agreement does not involve all the disgruntled parties hence the recent conflict between the National Salvation Front (NAS), the SSPDF and other parties. Furthermore, the task presented by the agreement is a daunting one. The unification of the country’s army with the armed forces of the splinter factions was projected to be and has been a rather difficult exercise.
Similarly, there exist evident differences between the parties concerning the re-estabilshment of state boundaries with Dr. Machar openly rejecting the President’s concession to return the number of states in the country to 10. Hence, while the TGoNU is deemed a success, the formation came almost 7 months late as a result of the inability of the agreeing parties to resolve key provisions of the agreement.
The parties are, essentially, “allocating” states and power to themselves. In simple terms, this is not a government of, for or by the people of South Sudan. This is a government formed to ease the external pressure and preserve a political class' vested interests.
The formation of the TGoNU itself appears unsettling with some political appointment, including the appointment of Dr. Machar’s wife Angelina Teny, deemed heavily biased. Moreover, the agreement allows a great deal of discretion and autonomy to the conflicting parties in its enforcement and application.
This has resulted in the partial, selective and inadequate implementation of the peace agreement. In addition, some of the underlying problems have not been, and may not be, solved by the agreement. Trust issues, economic mismanagement and incompetence, inter-communal conflict and land disputes would persist irrespective of the successful implementation or otherwise of the agreement as it prioritises power-sharing over structural reforms. South Sudan’s political arena is filled with political parties that have their “own” armed forces.
Therefore, the recent defection of prominent individuals from their respective political parties could have significant security implications. Ultimately, R-ARCSS being a power-sharing agreement and the failure to adequately unify the splintered forces establish its fragility. Nothing prevents a disgruntled party from returning to arms where they believe they are not benefiting enough from the “sharing” of the state.
Absence of War or Sustainable Peace
It cannot be denied that the formation of the TGoNU signals the end of the civil war. However, the absence of war is not the beginning of peace. The very foundation of the agreement is disturbing. The parties are, essentially, “allocating” states and power to themselves. In simple terms, this is not a government of, for or by the people of South Sudan. This is a government formed to ease the external pressure and preserve a political class' vested interests.
The military aristocracy remains unharmed, undisturbed and successful. The agreement does not, therefore, address the structural vices of troubled South Sudan. Disputes between national elites have obscured more localized violence in South Sudan. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted in a January 2020 study that at the national level, armed conflicts largely turned into regional conflicts at the beginning of December 2018.
Power-sharing continues to be the major focus of the peace transition rather than the need to correct the structural problems that plague the people of South Sudan. The TGoNU must step past platitudes and handshakes to genuinely resolve the possibility of future hostilities and repeated massacres.
The TGoNU must address the root causes of inter-ethnic conflicts, including rivalry for power and wealth. And to prevent committing the errors of the past, the TGoNU must bring an end to the atmosphere of immunity and impunity that benefits those who, during the civil war, directed and monitored attacks on innocent civilian communities. All these must be done while ensuring that the interest of citizens and general development of the state are given primacy as the nation progresses towards positive and sustainable peace.
Need for a Transition to Sustainable Peace
The absence of war cannot be seen as a success especially when it is based on a fragile agreement and the background of the multi-layered conflict. Addressing the humanitarian and economic crisis must be matched by efforts to ensure institutional reform. The path to peace must be shored up by political will and support. The transition to sustainable peace must be beyond unfair economic sanctions and misguided private interests. For far too long, the South Sudanese people have suffered needlessly from the consequences of war and atrocities. The government must return to the social contract and uphold their duty and facilitate the welfare of the people.
Sam Kwadwo Owusu-Ansah | Research Analyst, Transnational Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
Alao Omeiza | Research Assistant, Transnational Policy | email@example.com
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