Youth groups in South Sudan have called for nationwide demonstrations on May 15, in response to the recent announcement that the two sides in the country’s civil war extended their May 12 deadline to form a transitional unity government, contravening a key requirement of the September 2018 “revitalized” peace agreement. The delays in implementing the peace plan and the government’s heavy-handed response to the planned protests risk a new cycle of violence. At the same time, news concerning the disappearance of a human rights advocate and an opposition official, and the government’s new contract to pay U.S. lobbyists nearly $4 million to undermine the very peace agreement it signed, are further evidence of just how far the parties must go to achieve lasting peace.
The South Sudan government, led by President Salva Kiir, and its principle opposition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by Riek Machar, agreed on May 3 to extend the deadline to form the transitional government by six months. While the extension is not surprising, considering the slow pace of implementation and the distrust between parties, it is still disconcerting, given the failure of the last peace agreement.
Machar refused to return to Juba until key aspects of the pre-transitional period were met, particularly security arrangements that would protect him and his supporters. Kiir and other high-ranking government officials dismissed these concerns as unnecessary, arguing that peace had already returned to South Sudan. The impasse raises the question of whether a six-month extension will do anything other than push the same unresolved issues to November.
Further, in response to last week’s call by youth leaders for protests on May 15, the South Sudanese military occupied Freedom Square near the National Assembly and Presidential Residence in central Juba. Combined with these tactics to suppress peaceful demonstrations, the rhetoric of government officials is truly alarming. South Sudan Minister of Information Michael Makuei Lueth, for example, called the planned demonstrations an intervention paid for by outside forces and sought to prohibit the youth from gathering, stating, “If they are ready to die, we will see.”
A Fleeting Moment of Hope
There was some hope in early April that a dramatic intervention by Pope Francis would persuade Kiir and Machar to act after years of political negotiations had failed. South Sudan’s churches are among the last institutions to remain relatively untainted by conflict or corruption since the civil war began, and the Catholic Church is especially influential.
In lieu of a canceled 2017 visit to South Sudan due to security concerns, Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby organized a spiritual retreat this year for Kiir and Machar and their close advisors at the Vatican on April 10-11. In a particularly dramatic moment, Pope Francis kneeled and kissed the shoes of Kiir and Machar, pleading with them to “stay in peace.”
But the day after the retreat ended, Machar said the government and the opposition would not meet the May 12 deadline, because key requirements of the peace deal remained unmet. The same day, a joint briefing by officials of the African Union, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the United Nations commended the parties for a reduction of violence since the September signing of the revitalized peace agreement, but also noted the considerable work left to form a unity government and to implement the agreement fully.
Kiir urged Machar to return to Juba to form the unity government before the May 12 deadline, but on April 22, Machar called for a six-month extension, again citing inadequate security arrangements and other concerns. Kiir rejected the call for an extension, saying, “any delay to the formation of the government would crush the hopes of our people for peace.”
Several powerful states, including the Troika countries of the U.S., U.K., and Norway, also pushed the parties to make the compromises necessary to meet the May 12 deadline, but also acknowledged the likelihood of a delay. As the deadline neared and the odds of forming a unity government by May 12 declined, IGAD Special Envoy to South Sudan Ismail Wais asked the parties to attend a meeting in Addis Ababa on May 2-3. At the conclusion of the meeting, IGAD agreed to extend the deadline by six months. East African leaders supported the decision. But since then, Kiir already has called for a longer extension, arguing that a full year is necessary to meet the necessary conditions.
Challenges to Implementation
While improving security arrangements is the most pressing concern, several other notable challenges to implementing the peace deal remain, including reintegrating soldiers into one unified army—though some analysts question the wisdom of pursuing this objective—and deciding upon the number of states and their boundaries.
Each of these already substantial obstacles contains a subset of additional problems. For example, improved security arrangements are not possible without cantonment—the ability to keep armed forces in designated locations—as required by the peace accord. And in late April, the chair of the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMVM)—which oversees and verifies the ceasefire and transitional security process—said cantonment was far from complete. Likewise, Ambassador Augostino Njoroge, chair of the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC) to which the CTSAMVM reports, stated, “My greatest concern is the delayed operationalization of the cantonment sites, despite my repeated appeal to the Parties to expedite this process. To my knowledge, as I speak, there is not a single cantonment site that is operational.”
The monitoring force also continues to be denied access to areas it needs to reach, Ambassador Njoroge said, further undermining its ability to verify the transitional security process. The inability to keep armed forces in specified locations significantly contributed to the violence that swept through Juba in 2016, ending the last peace agreement and plunging the country into the worst phase of an already vicious civil war.
Finally, a broader question is the marshalling of resources necessary for implementing the peace agreement. The South Sudan government has been quick to decry a lack of funding from donor states to support implementation. In turn, donor states are understandably hesitant to provide significant funds to a peace process that failed spectacularly once and that features two leaders unable or unwillingly to find lasting peace since the fighting began in 2013. Donor states also are becoming more assertive in rejecting the government’s claims. U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Thomas Hushek, for example, noted that many aspects of the agreement do not need funding, but the political will to act.
Fighting the Bad Fight
While the South Sudan government complained over the cost of implementing the peace agreement, it managed to find $3.7 million to hire Gainful Solutions, a U.S. lobbying firm led by former U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger, including a $1.2 million retainer described as “an eye-catching fee even in the lucrative realm of foreign lobbying.” Ranneberger was a career State Department official and served as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Somalia, and Mali.
The contract calls for the firm to advocate for a better relationship between South Sudan and the Trump administration, including rolling back sanctions imposed on South Sudanese officials and private individuals directly linked to fueling and financially befitting from the country’s civil war.
Most egregiously, the contract tasked the firm to “delay and ultimately block the establishment of the hybrid court,” a fundamental aspect of the peace agreement that is broadly supported by the South Sudanese people as a mechanism for accountability for the many atrocities of the civil war. Human rights groups and government officials criticized the arrangement and Ambassador Hushek called the contract “very disturbing.”
Underscoring the need for accountability, several East African media outlets reported on April 30 that Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent human rights attorney, and Aggrey Idri Ezbon, a senior official in Machar’s SPLM-IO, both of whom had gone missing from the Kenyan capital Nairobi between January 23 and 24, 2017, apparently were killed in Luri, outside of Juba, that month.
Kiir’s government has denied any wrongdoing and instead accused Kenyan officials of the abductions. But a 111-page report on April 9 from the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan concluded that evidence strongly suggests South Sudan’s Internal Security Bureau (ISB) abducted Luak and Idri in Nairobi on orders from ISB Director General Akol Koor Kuc. The Panel of Experts concluded that South Sudan agents abducted the men—with the aid of the South Sudan Embassy in Nairobi—and flew them to Juba on Jan. 27, 2017, then took them to a known ISB detention facility in Luri on a sprawling complex owned by President Kiir. Citing the collaboration and verification of several “highly credible and well-placed sources,” the report says, “It is highly probable that Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were executed by Internal Security Bureau agents at the Luri facility on 30 January 2017.”
Meanwhile, the Kenyan government’s role in the abductions and killings remains unclear. Earlier this year, a Kenyan High Court concluded a two-year investigation of these disappearances after questions emerged concerning the effectiveness of a Kenyan police investigation into the matter.
Outside of Juba, fighting continues in Equatoria, especially near Yei, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The National Salvation Front, led by Thomas Cirilo, has clashed with the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) several times in the last few weeks, including an attack in late April that killed at least two SSPDF soldiers. This fighting follows a government offensive against Cirilo’s forces in mid-January. Cirilo has vowed to continue fighting the government until a peace agreement provides greater regional autonomy.
The ouster and subsequent arrest of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir adds to questions over the sustainability of the South Sudan peace agreement. Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni served as the guarantors of the peace agreement. Bashir was also the only regional leader that supported Machar, while Museveni backed Kiir.
The Transitional Military Council that removed Bashir from power in Sudan has reassured the South Sudan government that it remains committed to its guarantor status and to fostering a special relationship between the two states. In turn, Kiir’s government quickly threw its support to the Council and advocated for a longer period for it to transfer authority to civilians.
If Kiir now senses a lack of support for Machar, he might feel emboldened to take a harder line in negotiations. Likewise, opposition leaders other than Machar may use Bashir’s removal as an opportunity to attempt to secure a better deal within the transitional government.
It is in the best interests of political elites in both Sudan and South Sudan to ensure stability holds, as oil production across the two states is necessary to stave off economic collapse. But long histories of personal rivalries and political infighting should temper enthusiasm that these leaders will act in their best interests, let alone those of their people.
In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan continues. Widespread food insecurity and hunger are expected in May and June, as South Sudanese farmers have yet to recover from the conflict. UNICEF, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Programme warned earlier this year that nearly 7 million South Sudanese could face acute food insecurity during this period.
The decision to extend the May 12 deadline, while unsatisfying, was the best option available, although further or indefinite extensions will increase the risk of reigniting conflict. Moreover, the revitalized peace agreement is more of an opening negotiation than a final settlement, and a constant reworking of terms and agreements, though taxing, is better than the alternative of a return to armed conflict.
Under a strikingly similar agreement in 2016, a unity government lasted only a few months before collapsing into violence. Accordingly, keeping the government and the opposition moving forward, no matter how haltingly, is better than a hastily prepared and pressured return to Juba that results in another violent confrontation and more violence. And while South Sudan’s peace remains fragile, concerted diplomatic pressure and patient negotiations offer the best prospect for making it last.
IMAGE: Personnel of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF), formerly named Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), assigned as the country’s presidential guard, take part in a drill at their barracks in Rejaf, about 15km south of Juba, South Sudan, on April 26, 2019. Though under a September 2018 peace accord, the guard is supposed to be comprised of an even share of former SPLA soldiers and former Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO) soldiers, the two armies have still not commenced training together. (Photo by ALEX MCBRIDE/AFP/Getty Images)