On 24 January, South Sudan’s government and representatives from the rebellion signed a ceasefire agreement in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, with the hope of ending more than a month of fighting. But noticeably absent from the agreement was a lasting political solution to the hostilities that addresses the root causes of the conflict.
The manifestation of violence in South Sudan has been shocking in its ferocity,
but the unrest itself was not unexpected. The failure to substantively attend to the complex melee of elite personalities, ethnicity, and factionalism which has permeated South Sudanese politics since independence has led to the current conflict.
Increasing political criticism of President Salva Kiir’s leadership from within the ruling party was met with repeated crackdown rather than compromise, creating a unified opposition from within, led by former vice president Riek Machar. Additionally, in under-served rural areas, disenfranchised youths excluded from the governance of the country, such as those that constitute the Lou Nuer ‘White Army’, continued to have few, if any, opportunities to constructively contribute to their communities.
A chance for inclusion
On the day the ceasefire was signed, President Kiir announced plans to implement further government reforms. Yet a reshuffle that was meant to streamline ministries and improve service-delivery took place only recently, in July 2013. Neither the president nor the agreements reached in Addis so far have addressed what political future there will be for the former vice president and the 11 detainees accused of plotting a coup, once they are released. A political agreement that makes room for increased plurality and addresses the issue of elite infighting within the ruling party would go a long way toward preventing an early return to conflict.
Moving forward, the provision of representative governance opportunities − and at the very least recognizing their absence − offers a more practical basis on which to build longer-term peace. Progress will require measures that address both ethnicity and participation, incorporating the concerns of the many disaffected factions of South Sudanese society into the governing of the country. The government and its international partners should work towards building the capacity of local governance and incorporating the existing complex social structures into the process constructively. This includes the voices of the marginalized as well as the frustrated male youths who are willing to fight to be heard.
The increased factionalism evident during the recent fighting and the fact that the armed forces have swelled from around 50,000 to well over 200,000 since the 2005 peace agreement with Sudan has underscored the need for streamlining and professionalizing the security sector. The rebellion should serve as a wake-up call for the government. They now have the opportunity to implement structures that promote a competent security sector subordinate to civilian oversight.
The UN role
Operating under the restrictions of Security Council resolutions, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) treads a delicate diplomatic line between appeasing the government and fulfilling its Chapter VII mandate. The resolution empowers UNMISS to ‘support the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in exercising its responsibilities for conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution and protect civilians’. Faced with an estimated half a million displaced and a situation where a significant threat to civilians comes from government armed forces, UNMISS is in danger of becoming hamstrung by their need to support the government, and engage, yet not endorse, the opposition.
Since the conflict began in December, UNMISS has responded by protecting South Sudanese civilians, 76,000 of whom currently seek shelter in eight UN camps across the country. UNMISS has a pivotal role in the future of South Sudan – but the mandate will have to change. Simply increasing the number of peacekeepers by 5,500 to 12,500, while an understandable short-term measure, is not enough.
Recent experiences may pose more fundamental questions regarding the UN’s approach to peacekeeping in general and challenge some of the central concepts that underpin those missions. Nation-building in South Sudan will challenge concepts like that of good governance, championed by the UN and the international community, which are proving ineffective and detrimental to reforming governance in the country because they do not build on existing structures and customary practices.
Without tackling the underlying causes of the conflict, the recently brokered peace and any subsequent reconciliation will serve only as a temporary solution. If prevention is better than cure then accepting this difficult task may help move the country towards a more sustainable peace.
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