Preventing Renewed War in South Sudan

Juba/Addis Ababa/Brussels

International Crisis Group

The honeymoon period is now over for the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, which formally ended the civil war in August 2015. Its guarantors need to act urgently in the next days to save it and prevent the country from returning to full-scale combat.
The agreement successfully enabled the return of Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), to Juba and the subsequent formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity in April. However, the formerly warring parties are now flouting it and increasingly preparing for widespread conflict. Implementation is stalled and fighting is already proliferating around the country. Unless something is done, it is a matter of only a little time before there is a return to war, and the agreement collapses.
For the moment, the permanent ceasefire, though increasingly strained, continues to hold in the civil war’s major conflict theatre. From the perspective of many in Salva Kiir’s wartime government, it applies only to the Greater Upper Nile region, therefore the proliferation of conflicts in Greater Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal, such as the recent deadly clashes in Wau, does not affect their commitment to the peace agreement. However, the increasing number of discrete conflicts in other regions could trigger renewed fighting in Greater Upper Nile or Juba and lead to a far more explosive return to a broad civil conflict.
While the SPLA-IO in Greater Upper Nile is not as strong as it was in early 2014, when many army divisions split and soldiers defected to the rebels, its presence in Juba and recruitment of forces and allies in Greater Equatoria place the capital under a renewed threat, particularly its civilians, who are at risk of ethnically-targeted violence.
In the nine months that the ceasefire has been observed, forces have simply paused hostilities while remaining in close proximity: there has been no joint security oversight or move toward unification or demobilisation. This would be an untenable status quo even if there were political progress, which there is not.
Renewed conflict would be devastating for South Sudan. It could also quickly lead to the regional contagion experienced in 2014, when the Ugandan military intervened in favour of Juba, and Sudan supported the SPLA-IO – and could reverse the nascent rapprochement between Uganda and Sudan. The risk of regional war motivated the mediation efforts of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). It, as well as other international actors, put enormous pressure on Kiir and Machar to sign the peace agreement and establish the transitional government. The collapse of the agreement could have serious implications for the regional stability that IGAD’s Heads of State worked hard to protect.
At the African Union summit in Kigali within two weeks, IGAD has a chance to prevent a return to full-scale war. The Heads of State should consider the points of dispute and give the parties clear directives to salvage the agreement and prevent war. This should include:

  • using IGAD’s authority, as the agreement’s guarantors, to re-affirm the warring parties’ commitment to the ceasefire and rejection of further violence;
  •   asserting that IGAD member states are fully aware of the deterioration of the political situation and prepared to expend resources on mediation and diplomacy with key actors;
  • maintaining that IGAD member states are committed to the peace deal and will act through IGAD to secure regional stability if violence breaks out again; and
  • directing the parties to act on key tenets of the agreement and IGAD resolutions, including IGAD’s directions for a detailed plan on cantonment of forces and clarification of the terms of reference for the committee to resolve outstanding issues related to the government’s expansion of the number of South Sudan states from 10 to 28.

Against the odds, the IGAD Heads of State came together last year and in effect forced an agreement on the parties. Their current lack of focus on peace implementation allows the parties to prevaricate and avoid implementing aspects they do not like. If the Heads of State do not take decisions that reflect the seriousness of the situation and follow up with action, their two years’ peacemaking work could amount to little.

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