South Sudan’s long-running peace process has reached another milestone. On 12 September, President Salva Kiir and opposition leaders, including Riek Machar, signed a power-sharing deal promising an end to the five-year conflict that is estimated to have claimed nearly 400,000 lives and displaced one-third of the population.
Under the deal, which is a ‘revitalized’ version of a previous deal reached in 2015, Machar will be reinstated as first vice president with a reconstituted transitional government to be established in May 2019. News of the agreement was greeted with cautious optimism by a population who are desperate for peace, and huge crowds turned out for the government’s peace celebrations on 31 October.
Once bitten, twice shy?
But many South Sudanese think the political elite remain more interested in seeking government posts and personal advantage than sustainable peace and are doubtful if this latest elite deal will make much difference or bring urgently needed reforms.
This caution appears to be shared by the Troika of the US, UK and Norway, who were excluded from the final negotiations and declined to co-sign the agreement. Having seen the 2015 peace deal swiftly fall apart and multiple violations of ceasefire agreements since the conflict started in December 2013, they want to see evidence of the parties’ commitment to accountable implementation of this latest deal, including a new determination to put the needs of the people first.
There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. Two months after the signing of this latest deal, fighting has continued in several areas, humanitarian workers have been attacked, political detainees remain in jail and independent websites are still blocked.
Further, Kiir and Machar proved unable to work together in the last transitional government. Systemic corruption, nepotism and tribal patronage remain prevalent at all levels of government. The latest deal provides for a bloated governance structure, with five vice presidents. The country faces economic crisis. And there is a lack of clarity over how all this will work in practice.
Some in the opposition are also concerned that that the deal provides for a more intrusive role for Sudan and Uganda, including militarily, and appears designed to serve their interests.
Sudan has already deployed troops to protect the oil fields in Unity State. When the venue for the peace process moved from Addis Ababa to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in June, Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda used their leverage on Machar and Kiir respectively to broker a deal – but the government of Sudan made no secret of its desire to benefit from South Sudan’s oil resources to contain its own economic crisis. At a time when Sudan wants to normalize its relations with the international community, it is also keen to project itself in the role of regional peace-maker.
Reasons for hope
However, there are also tentative reasons for hope. There is no appetite among the South Sudanese population to prolong a war that is widely understood to be driven by a power struggle between self-interested political elites. Despite pockets of serious fighting, the overall level of violence has significantly declined compared to this time last year.
Several opposition parties therefore concluded that, despite reservations, they had no option but to back the deal. Several of their leaders have returned to Juba and held consultations with Kiir. Even Machar made a one-day trip to Juba on Bashir’s plane to take part in the peace celebrations, the first time he had been back since he was driven out in July 2016.
Regional dynamics look more favourable to peace than in 2015. Because of their own economic problems, Sudan and Uganda now have an incentive to support the peace deal.
The power balance between key South Sudanese players has also shifted. Kiir signed the 2015 peace agreement reluctantly and with many reservations but has welcomed the new deal because the region seems to have accepted that he should remain in office as president for the foreseeable future. He is in a militarily more dominant position than in 2015 and is reassured that, this time, Machar will not be returning to Juba with his own army.
From Machar’s perspective, the deal is also attractive because it has meant release from two years under house arrest in South Africa and restored him to the post of first vice president.
Challenges to come
Much remains to be accomplished before the transition is even launched. Security sector reform, financial transparency and reaching consensus on a federal structure are bound to prove difficult and contentious. But these and other challenges need not prove insuperable if there is sufficient political will to build on the momentum created by the deal, enforce a complete ceasefire, release political detainees, create political space and open a dialogue with those opposition leaders, such as Thomas Cirillo, who are not yet convinced of the sustainability of the agreement.
The Troika and the EU can play a key role, beyond any financing of the transition, notably by encouraging trust-building between political leaders – particularly Kiir and Machar – even before the launch of the new government. They can support the role of civil society, including women, in monitoring and implementation and assist in the wide dissemination of the agreement to all citizens – the South Sudanese people holding their leadership to account would be the best guarantee for implementation.
And the international community must seek to ensure that the mistakes of the past are avoided in relation to security sector reform, notably the short-term bolting-together of recently warring factions into new military structures, while leaving ethnic fault lines, parallel loyalties and entrenched hostility untouched under the surface.
The primary responsibility for making this peace deal a success lies with South Sudanese leaders. But the UN Security Council, the African Union and particularly members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – the regional trade bloc, who signed the agreement as guarantors – have a responsibility to follow through on implementation and hold the parties to account by publicly highlighting any violations and supporting rigorous implementation of UN sanctions and the arms embargo.
Now is also the time to increase support for grass-roots peacebuilding, reconciliation, skills training and education. Although an elite deal has been reached at national level, there is still a long way to go to address the bitterness created by years of brutal civil war and to create the conditions in which millions of refugees and displaced people can return safely to their homes and South Sudanese can start to dream of a more positive future.