In December 2013, civil war broke out in South Sudan, one of the world’s youngest nations. This was marked by persistent disregard for the sanctity of civilians, especially women and children. After several failed regional mediation attempts, neighbouring states and the international partners —pressured President Salva Kiir and SPLM-iO leader Riek Machar to sign the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015 in Addis Ababa. In principle, the agreement aimed to end the violent civil war and support comprehensive political reforms during a three-year inclusive Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU). Nevertheless, just after the ARCSS was signed, Kiir issued a presidential decree to increase the number of states from 10 to 28.
A new #SouthSudan must emerge through a civilian technocratic government @DrAYchieTweet
Before the country could mark its fifth anniversary of independence, in July 2016, fighting broke out in Juba between the SPLA-iG and SPLM/A-iO, killing over three hundred civilians, and two UN peacekeepers. Machar escaped from Juba, fleeing to DRC and then to South Africa. Weeks later, Kiir then issued another presidential decree to increase the number of federal states from 28 to 32 in January 2017, which paralleled ethnicity and resource locations, and fuelled instability between communities and the influx of local self-defence militias.
A sluggish implementation process
Kiir and Machar eventually agreed on a “revitalised” agreement dubbed R-ARCSS, in September 2018, which salvaged the 2015 peace agreement, without accountability mechanisms and no penalties—and with Sudan and Uganda guarantors. Twice, the signatories missed vital deadlines and delayed the formation of a TGoNU until its creation in February 2020. Machar agreed to return to Juba under the government’s protection without his forces, and Kiir reverted the number of states to ten (with three administrative areas). However, the integrated forces (83,000), which were supposed to be a part of a unified national army, were left sitting for months in cantonment sites, starving, lacking primary health care, and with many later leaving the sites. Efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were partly blamed for these delays. Kiir refused to integrate his forces and only allowed Machar to visit his troops in February 2021.
Kiir’s gender blind policies included the appointment of mostly male governors, deputies and government officials, linked with the military. While politics continues to be dominated by the military and elites, many appointees lack technical expertise in the areas necessary to rebuild South Sudan and tackle existing challenges. Locally, institutions are either weak, non-existent or have been eroded due to prolonged conflict. The government’s response to communal violence has been to use threats of coercion against civilians as a strategy instead of comprehending the trauma experienced by civilians, building local capacity, and reconciling communities.
The government response to the outbreak of COVID has been left wanting. The national task force on COVID-19 was set up and while restriction on social events, religious gatherings, and sports have been banned; schools and universities are closed except for exams and businesses such as bars, have been told to shut, the country has only just received its first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines, a total of 132,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses on March 25th. The government has failed to adequately communicate the effects of COVID-19 to people at the grass-roots levels, and due to the plundering of oil revenues by elites, the state has not been able to put in place a stimulus package to support South Sudanese civilians.
International support is essential, but is not sufficient to preserve peace in #SouthSudan @DrATchieTweet
Elections in 2022
The office of the President recently announced that South Sudan is not in a position to conduct general elections in 2022, as provided for in the revitalised peace deal, citing as reasons the slow implementation of the R-ARCSS, more time needed to prepare for the elections and the need to carry out a population consensus. The issue of the election is bound to cause further instability if not managed adequately. As Dr Lam Akol has recently indicated, ‘The Revitalised Agreement can only be amended by all parties to the agreement with 2/3 of the members of the Council of Ministers of the RTGoNU, and at least 2/3 of the voting members of the Revitalised Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission consenting to the amendment.’ However, parliament and council states have not been reconstituted, raising fundamental questions about government’s intention and plans.
International support is essential, but it is not sufficient to preserve peace in South Sudan. All the failed agreements over the last decade have been heavily Juba focused with not enough attention on the ongoing suffering of the South Sudanese people in the rest of the country. These experiences have all shown that international pressure and the lopsided focus on elite bargains and government institutions has undermined potential, autonomy and local ownership, which has had a profound impact on the country’s home-grown peace-making practices, structures and valuable expertise. If international partners continue to recycle the same approach and templates that have not been successful in the past—i.e., weak ceasefire agreements, anaemic power sharing transitional agreements and flawed elections—then the prospects of South Sudan emerging from conflict into a post-conflict state is dim.
Dr Andrew E. Yaw Tchie is a Senior Researcher and Project coordinator for the Training for Peace Project at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham.