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Reviving South Sudan: a pat or shot in the arm?


Reviving South Sudan: a pat or shot in the arm?

South Sudan presidential guard await the arrival of foreign dignitaries invited to participate in the country's official independence celebrations in the capital city of Juba. 9 July 2011


The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development — the Eastern African regional body mediating the South Sudan civil conflict — has proposed a new peace process to revive the faltering 2015 peace agreement.


– South Sudan has been in political crisis since 2013 — an armed struggle has pitted the opposition against government forces
– The framework for engagement for the newly proposed peace initiative, the High-Level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF), remains unclear and is open to interpretation
– The HLRF is likely to fail if the process is not broadly inclusive

The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) recently unveiled a new terminology it has adopted in its renewed efforts to salvage the South Sudan peace process. Deep within a civil war that began shortly after the country gained independence from Sudan in 2011, the IGAD — an Eastern African regional body — is recommending the opposing parties strive for ‘revitalisation’. But it is not clear what this means in the context of the peace process.

Questions abound on the parameters of ‘revitalisation’ within the framework of the Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), the 2015 peace accord between the opposing factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A). Power struggles between incumbent President Salva Kiir and his former first Vice President Riek Machar early in the new republic’s life adopted an ethnic dynamic and triggered the 2013 civil strife. While the ratification of the peace agreement signalled the end of the latest resurgence of conflict, the major signatories pronounced it dead on arrival. Intermediaries like the IGAD have struggled to find a breakthrough ever since.


The post-independence history of Sudan is marked by two periods of civil unrest. Conflict first erupted between the South Sudanese and the central government of Sudan in 1955, one year prior to independence, and ended in 1972. Following a ten-year hiatus, the country experienced another conflagration of conflict between 1983 and 2005. While there are no reliable records of civilian casualties during the first conflict, Alex de Waal estimates 1-2 million fatalities arising from the second conflict.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between South Sudan and federal authorities in 2005 included a provision for a plebiscite for the self-determination of the South. In 2011, approximately 99% of Southern Sudanese voted in favour of secession. But the fragility of post-independence South Sudan has continued to be characterised by resource and ethnic conflicts intertwined with macro-regional dynamics.

In 2013, barely three years post-secession, South Sudan once again descended into internal armed struggle. Protracted insurgencies have had a profound impact on political, social and economic structures that will require sustained inter-generational efforts to transform. The fundamental question is to what extent the 2015 ARCSS accord promises to achieve this.


South Sudan President Salva Kiir (C) walks with a high delegation from the United Nations (UN) Security Council, including US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (R) during a tour of the South Sudan's state house, known as j1, to show the damages of fighting at the state house from July, on September 4, 2016, prior to a closed-door meeting.
Photo: Charles Atiki Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images

Apart from the sluggish pace of the operationalisation of ARCSS, the agreement has been criticised for being externally imposed and preferential. Both Kiir and Machar slammed and repudiated the accord soon after its ratification, implying a lack of political goodwill necessary for its implementation.

President Kiir views ARCSS as a blueprint for regime change, and prior to signing it he articulated sixteen reservations with the agreement’s current formation. He eventually penned his signature in part to countervail the threat of UN sanctions. For his government, the revitalisation forum implies an evaluation of the agreement by all the parties and guarantors. His government has warned the forum should not be construed as yet another opportunity for negotiations between the main protagonists.

On his part, Machar claims that Kiir got a good deal with the ‘lion’s share’. He initially interpreted the revitalisation forum as a fresh negotiation process and most recently viewed it as IGAD’s appeasement to Kiir’s demands. These contradictory visions fundamentally undermine the agreement.

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South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar speaks during a briefing ahead of his return to South Sudan as vice president, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa April 9, 2016.
Photo: Tiksa Negeri /Reuters

Revitalisation will likely flounder if the people of South Sudan — who must be represented in grassroots diplomatic efforts — are not invested and linked to the national-level political process. The success of the peace process relies on broad support of the population, which traditionally has trusted their leaders to know best and act in the best interests of ‘their people’. Consultations have excluded some of the groups directly affected by the conflict — such as the internally displaced and refugees — while the broader population has largely remained passive in the process. This has weakened the potential for groundswell support to force the opposing leaders to negotiate.

IGAD’s difficult balancing act will force it to benchmark the scope and scale of the HLRF. The platform will need to get the two leaders to agree on the terms of this approach prior to the commencement of formal talks or risk any new agreement immediately collapsing again. Once revitalisation has been unpacked and contextualised, then it can begin to imbue inclusive confidence building mechanisms that will be critical for any hope of peace. Yet political elites influenced by close allies and constituents have often acted in the narrow self-interest of their communities. While the conflict has pitted Kiir’s Dinkas against Machar’s Nuers, underlying this ethnic dimension are multiple drivers including resource control and pursuit of political power.

Kiir’s government has been accused of runaway corruption, marginalising communities in favour of the Dinkas in resource allocation, and nepotistic appointment of government positions. Machar, who maintains his own contingent of soldiers armed with an array of sophisticated weapons and chief of staff, has sparked government fears of a possible mutiny from the Nuer tribe. The contentious relationship between the office of the president and vice-president, and Machar’s ambitions to seek the presidency, led to his eventual dismissal that ignited the latest crisis. The level of militarisation, entitlement, non-cooperation, impunity and deep-seated mistrust on both sides does not create the conditions for peace and a viable power-sharing arrangement in the interim.

The revitalisation forum, if well motivated, can inject a new lease of life in an increasingly anaemic peace process. Overcoming the gridlock may require an inter-generational change in mindset, particularly regarding cultural and ethnic diversity. With political and military elites divided, IGAD’s peacebuilding efforts could find greater traction among local communities that tend to be engaged in later stages of peace deals, such as implementation.

Ultimately, if the political elites have the responsibility to craft the peace agreement and implement it, the people of South Sudan have the overall responsibility to live for and by it.

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