For more than two years, South Sudan’s leaders have engaged in stalling tactics that have stymied the implementation of the peace deal signed in September 2018. President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, by signing the peace accord, agreed to form a transitional government that would prepare the country for elections. But even now, critical aspects of the deal such as security arrangements, a reconstituted legislature, transitional justice, and institutional reforms are behind schedule or completely frozen.
While Kiir and Machar prolong the implementation of the peace deal, opportunities for good governance are being squandered. A significant delay in appointing state governors, for example, means that intractable problems, such as inter-ethnic blood feuds and militarized cattle raiding, cannot be resolved due to the lack of political leadership at the state level. In the first week of February alone, seven people died in inter-ethnic fighting in Lakes and Warrap states.
The foot-dragging on security arrangements also means that the formation of a unified army is not complete, thereby undermining confidence in the peace agreement. The chief of staff of Machar’s rebel army, for example, refuses to set foot in the capital, indicating he is not happy with the security arrangements. Also troubling is the fact that a hybrid court stipulated in the peace deal will not be established on time, and critical evidence required for the prosecution of cases may be lost, making it more difficult to hold war criminals accountable.
The future of South Sudan depends on good governance and a transparent and accountable system. But the failure to reconstitute the National Legislature within the first few months of the deal means that critical oversight on government budgets and spending is missing. There are no checks on impunity. Leaders are taking advantage of the chaos to increase their own wealth at the expense of the people.
Intermittent pressure from the international community has failed to spur change thus far. But with the Biden administration now in place, the United States has an unprecedented opportunity to change the calculus of South Sudan’s reticent leaders and prevent a return to violence. By rethinking its engagement strategy and reenergizing the deployment of previously successful policy tools and measures, the new team could help devise a realistic peace and end a conflict that has so far claimed 300,000 lives and produced nearly 2.3 million refugees.
The good news is that the Biden administration does not need to start from scratch. The toolkit for these measures already exists. The Global Magnitsky Act, anti-money laundering measures, asset freezes, and Treasury Department advisories are tools that, if deployed strategically, can dissuade self-serving leaders in South Sudan from further stalling progress in implementing the peace agreement.
For those in power in South Sudan’s crooked governance system, the benefits of corruption far outweigh the dividends that accrue from peace. Senior politicians exploit the loopholes in the system to award themselves lucrative contracts, and appoint friends and family to positions of power. Cronyism ensures that legislators are unwilling to hold officials accountable. Even institutions of accountability work at the behest of senior government politicians. Officials are therefore inclined to maintain the status quo ante of war because it benefits them. To end the intractable conflict, a renewed U.S. engagement policy must aim to dismantle this incentive structure by using financial tools in tandem with a diplomatic strategy that establishes clear goals to achieve lasting peace.
The first step is to go after the spoilers who are undermining the peace agreement. These officials engage in human rights abuses such as the illegal arrest and detention of journalists and civil society activists. They introduce obstacles to stymie the implementation of the peace agreement—by rejecting outright all the candidates for office proposed by the opposition, for instance. Worse, they are complicit in violating signed ceasefires and attacking opponents’ positions. Just last year, in November, government and rebel troops accused one another of initiating attacks against the military and civilians alike. To send a clear message that impunity for such actions no longer reigns, the United States should expand its use of the Global Magnitsky Act with targeted measures against more individuals or entities, for example.
Next, the kleptocratic governance structure that fuels the war must be cracked. By deploying financial pressures against networks—targeting individual peace spoilers, their companies, and their international business associates—concurrently with anti-money laundering measures, asset freezes, and advisories, the Biden administration could maximize the outcomes for holistic peace.
Peace agreements in South Sudan have hardly yielded the desired outcome because they are used by political elites to extend their hold on power and co-opt rivals into their camp. In the past, targeted measures by the Treasury Department have been successful in effecting change: they were partly responsible for cajoling reluctant politicians to agree to sign the peace deal in 2018. With the buy-in of allies Britain and Norway, which have been guarantors to the peace process since 2014, as well as the European Union and African Union, these pressures can be applied in a concerted manner to change the calculus for war in South Sudan.
Such a strategy could, for instance, be tied to South Sudan achieving short- and long-term goals with clear benchmarks that leaders must deliver on within a specified timeline. At the moment, an urgent short-term goal could include achieving progress on stalled elements of the peace deal—such as the creation of unified armed forces—and completing the formation of government at the state level. Future stability in South Sudan depends entirely on good governance marked by independent and effective institutions that can hold officials accountable, so a long-term diplomatic strategy could be connected to achieving progress on the institutional reforms spelled out in Chapter IV of the peace agreement.
Along with financial pressure, the United States could reinvigorate its diplomatic track by appointing a highly respected senior diplomat as a special envoy who would have clout and respect in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. That would signal to leaders responsible for the South Sudanese conflict that Washington accords a high priority to realizing a serious peace.
For far too long, the people of South Sudan have endured the misery of a war inflicted by self-aggrandizing politicians. But if the United States takes concrete steps to counter the incentive structure, the world’s youngest country may finally have a chance at peace.