Rosalind Marsden
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Following renewed regional and international engagement, an agreement seemed imminent. But pressures on all sides could still spoil the latest effort to end the conflict.
President of South Sudan Salva Kiir attends a meeting during his official visit in Addis Ababa on 17 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.President of South Sudan Salva Kiir attends a meeting during his official visit in Addis Ababa on 17 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

After months of stalled peace talks led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD),  there were rising hopes that the latest round of talks in Addis Ababa offered the best chance yet of the ending the 20-month long conflict in South Sudan. But what emerged by the 17 August deadline was only a partial agreement. It was signed by the armed opposition leader Riek Machar and the recently reinstated secretary-general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Pagan Amum, on behalf of the former detainees. Ominously, President Salva Kiir did not sign, but was persuaded by the mediation to take 15 days for consultations. The key questions now are whether Kiir will come back to Addis in 15 days and sign and, if so, whether the peace agreement would hold.

Getting a signature

There were several positive signs in the run-up to the latest round of talks, including the launch of IGAD PLUS – a broad coalition of international actors including IGAD, the UN, African Union (AU), five African countries, the Troika (the US, UK and Norway), the EU and China – which came together to shape a South Sudan peace deal. On 24 July, IGAD PLUS presented the parties with a draft compromise peace agreement and gave them until 17 August to sign a final deal. With not more than 10 per cent of issues outstanding between the parties after negotiations, last-minute dialogue focused on the compromise aspects of the deal, increasing pressure on the warring parties to sign.

President Obama’s personal engagement during his regional visit last month gave further momentum to the peace process, with the warning that further punitive actions, including additional sanctions, an arms embargo and more international intrusion, would be on the table if the warring parties remained recalcitrant.

At a summit meeting with IGAD heads of state on 16 and 17 August, the parties were believed to have come close to consensus. However, this started to unravel in the hours before the signing ceremony (by which time President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan had left), when the government again raised various reservations. President Kiir appears to have come under strong pressure from his Bahr el-Ghazal hardliners not to sign. Despite encouragement from IGAD leaders to sign the agreement, he declined to do more than initial it as a witness and undertake further consultations.   

Internally Kiir will face conflicting pressures. Many in senior positions in the government support the agreement and the SPLM’s secretary-general has already signed. South Sudanese Church leaders have called for an immediate end to the fighting, decrying the self-interested squabbling of the elite while innocent civilians continue to be killed. But there are powerful hardliners who fear that the agreement would threaten their own interests and positions. Confusion over the defection of several of Machar’s senior generals may also influence calculations. The president will certainly face heavy international and regional pressure to sign, as was clear from AU, US, UK and other statements at the signing ceremony. Much will depend on what advice Kiir is given by his close ally President Museveni, who has urged to the government to put aside personal ambitions and egos.

Would a deal stick?

The amended agreement published by IGAD is closely based on the 24 July IGAD PLUS proposal including a permanent ceasefire, integration of security forces over an 18-month period and a 30-month transitional government of national unity, which would leave President Kiir in power and reinstate Machar as first vice president. 

The government would have a 53 per cent stake in the executive at national level, the opposition 33 per cent and the former detainees and other political parties 7 per cent each, with a two-thirds threshold for decision-making. However, some significant amendments are reported to have been made, particularly to the proposed demilitarization of the national capital (provision for a third party security unit, including UN forces, has been dropped), the security arrangements (significantly, the new army is to be renamed the National Defence Forces of South Sudan and non-state security actors, including the Sudan Revolutionary Front, repatriated) and to the power-sharing arrangements at state level, whereby the opposition would no longer get a majority share in the executive in the oil-rich conflict-affected states of Greater Upper Nile but would gain a 15 per cent share in the other seven states. The agreement also contains a number of important peacebuilding provisions relating to institutional reform, accountability, economic management and international oversight, though UN involvement in the hybrid court has been dropped.

Even if Kiir were to sign, the key question is whether the peace agreement would stick. There a number of factors that could come together to scupper such a deal. As no one has been debarred from standing in the next presidential elections, the transitional period is likely to be marked by intense political competition. It won’t be easy to get everyone working together, even with an international oversight body that is supposed to hold the transitional government to account. It is also unclear how the AU Commission of Inquiry’s yet unpublished report on human rights violations during the conflict might play into the mix.

Most important of all is whether any agreement reached in Addis paves the way for a wide-ranging national conversation among South Sudanese on how to build durable peace, including the need for long-term grass-roots reconciliation. Whether or not this latest plan can finally be implemented to stop the conflict, there is a long road ahead.

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