The agreement between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and ex-rebel opposition leader Riek Machar to form a transitional national unity government after repeated delays marks an important breakthrough on the six-year-long road to peace. However, it is still not clear sailing to end the civil war that killed an estimated 400,000 people. There remain pending differences over power sharing arrangements, the assimilation of rebel militias into a unified national army and police force, and other major issues, each capable of raising major stumbling blocks and, perhaps, triggering another backslide, as occurred in 2013 and 2016.
“If there are things we have not agreed upon, we have agreed to resolve them. We shall finalise them in the coming days,” President Kiir said Thursday when the agreement was announced. As reassuring as that sounded, it was not clear whether this meant by 22 February, the deadline for forming the government or in the days after that.
One of the remaining bones of contention has to do with the number of states and their borders. On 14 February, Kiir, under immense pressure, backed down from his insistence on retaining 32 states he had created and agreed to return to the original 10, as the opposition demanded. But he then insisted on adding three administrative areas — the oil-rich Ayei, Pibor and Ruweng — which the opposition adamantly refused. This remains unresolved. When announcing arrangements for the formation of the new government, Minister of Information Michael Makuei said that the vice presidents would be sworn in 22 February and that the appointments of cabinet members, the governors of the 10 states and officials responsible for the three administrative areas would follow soon afterwards. Then parliament voted to amend the constitution to provide for 10 states plus three administrative areas. Following this, a spokesman for Machar said that Machar and Kiir would resume work on resolving that problem after the government is formed.
The number of states and their boundaries are critical to the process of distributing power. Most of the oil producing areas fall under the influence of the Nuer, the ethnic group to which Machar belongs. The Nuer see attempts to create more administrative divisions as a device to curtail their influence.
The agreement also called for Machar’s reinstatement as first vice president after which Kiir and he would work out a power sharing formula. But will Kiir actually concede real powers and jurisdictions to Machar? Or will he attempt to limit Machar to nominal posts or restrict his ability to exercise his given authorities as occurred during the first national unity government, triggering a replay of mutual tensions, recriminations and accusations that quickly escalated into civil war before?
Security arrangements in the capital, Juba, is another deferred issue. President Kiir has promised a more inclusive government. However, he mentioned nothing of Machar’s demand for an international peacekeeping force in Juba in advance of the formation of the new government. Will Kiir’s vow to protect opposition members appointed to the new government be enough? Ambiguous security arrangements and a lack of mutual trust were chief reasons for the collapse of the national unity government six years ago, only three months after it was formed. Dozens of people were killed in the fighting that erupted in Juba before spreading to the rest of the country, while Machar and other opposition leaders were forced to flee on foot to neighbouring Congo and hundreds of other opposition members were jailed.
But perhaps the most intractable obstacle has been the failure to implement the provisions of the agreement calling for the decommissioning and dissolution of rebel militias and the assimilation of their members into a unified national army and police force or, alternatively, the civil service. Will the new government be able to allocate the estimated $285 million needed to rehabilitate members of the rebel militias, compensate them for surrendering their weapons and incorporate them into the state? Will donor nations continue to be reluctant to help the government find the funds on the grounds that the factions are not serious enough about achieving peace? Certainly, the alternative would be grim: another collapse of peace while angry ex-rebels regroup into their former militias or enlist with factions not yet subscribed to the peace process.
According to UN relief agency figures, the civil war in South Sudan caused the worst refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The crisis is not just about a political power struggle between Kiir and Machar, or even between the majority Dinka peoples to which Kiir belongs and the Nuer, the largest ethnic group in the country. It is also a conflict over who controls the land, its wealth and its people, and it involves many other ethnicities and tribes, such as the Shilluk, the third largest ethnic group among approximately 60 ethnic groups in South Sudan. South Sudan had around 157 ethnicities who had been caught up in two long civil wars, the first from 1956 to 1972 and the second from 1983 to 2005, the date of the Naivasha Peace Agreement that upheld the South Sudanese people’s right to self-determination as expressed in a referendum over independence.
There is another major opposition alliance outside of Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). Formed in February 2018, its most prominent leaders are former chief of staff Paul Malong, Thomas Cirilo of the National Salvation Front (NAS) and Pagan Amum who had served as secretary general of the ruling People’s Movement Party before Kiir dismissed and imprisoned him. This alliance, called the South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA), was sworn to overthrow Kiir, but in January 2020 it signed a memorandum of understanding known as the Rome Declaration in which it committed to halt hostilities, engage in a political dialogue conducive to peace, and facilitate the arrival of humanitarian relief to civilians.
Unfortunately, there are no concrete signs that SSOMA will remain committed to the MoU. Perhaps its members are waiting until they are assured their piece of the power pie that Kiir and Machar are divvying up. Given the volatility in South Sudan, it is not difficult to predict that, if they do not feel satisfactorily rewarded, they will jettison the MoU, revert to combat and rob the deeply traumatised country of the opportunity to reap some of the fruits of the cessation of hostilities and the formation of a national unity government.
Without a doubt, Washington’s arm twisting — of Kiir in particular — was instrumental in spurring the concessions needed for the current political breakthrough. In addition to recalling the US ambassador to Juba because Kiir had not taken a single tangible step to ensure the political and security conditions needed to create a national unity government and to implement other terms of the peace agreement, Washington also sanctioned First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, whom it accused of engineering the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry, and it sanctioned Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk and Minister of Cabinet Affairs Martin Elia Lomura in their capacity as “senior leaders in South Sudan that have perpetuated the conflict for their own personal enrichment”. Lomuro was allegedly “responsible for actively recruiting and organising local militias to conduct attacks against opposition forces in South Sudan” while Juuk “fomented violence with rival tribes, and oversaw the training of tribal militias to prepare for the possibility of renewed violence.”
Hopefully Kiir, Machar, the nine members of SSOMA and others will get the message. This may be the only guarantee that will prevent the new national unity government from going the way of its predecessors and that will keep South Sudan from relapsing into the conflict that has displaced more than two million people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly