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The AU’s three options in South Sudan

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The AU’s three options in South Sudan

With the economy in meltdown, and a shocking level of atrocities, South Sudan is teetering on the brink of genocide, as once again, the international community goes into a festival of handwringing. Below, some options for immediate action. By New African’s Special Correspondent.

Every January, a motley legion of African diplomats, civil society, and politicians descends upon Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, at the behest of the African Union (AU), to debate, among others, options for resolving the multiple crises that afflict the continent. Since 2014, South Sudan has been a fixture on the AU agenda, having degenerated into internecine violence less than three years after its independence in 2011. This January 2017, the AU once again met for deliberations and to issue communiqués urging the belligerent parties in that country to fastidiously resolve the conflict and save the region from a fast-developing humanitarian catastrophe. Unfortunately, this paper ritual is going to be repeated by the AU for years to come, while South Sudan sinks even deeper in its abyss. But how did we get here, to start with?

From independence in 2011, the leadership of South Sudan which, according to Gérard Prunier, “sleepwalked into a situation of governance…” demonstrated a proclivity for anarchy over an orderly transition from a liberation movement into a civilian government. With a raft of interwoven political gaffes, economic mismanagement, and ethnic infighting, a bloody showdown was only a matter of “when”, and not “if”. In December 2013, South Sudan, the newest member of the global community of nations, surprised all when armed conflict erupted in the capital, Juba, in what was initially believed to be a coup, but turned out to be no more than organised chaos.

This conflict, that was triggered by an ordinary leadership dispute within the top echelons of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), masked historical grievances, sucked in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and quickly deteriorated into all-out ethnic violence pitting Dinka and Nuer communities against each other. The ethnicised armed violence rapidly spread from Juba to Greater Upper Nile, drew in Uganda and Khartoum, thereby threatening to revive old feuds, caused political stress in the Gambela region of Ethiopia and disrupted Kenya’s financial investments in South Sudan.

The disastrous political, military, economic and diplomatic consequences were obvious to all – the conflict had the potential to degenerate into a regional conflagration, pitting old enemies against each other and creating new enemies of old allies. This “dirty war” had left a trail of destruction impacting on all South Sudan’s neighbours. As in all “dirty wars”, human rights violence became the grim trademark of the scorched-earth combat tactics employed by the belligerents.

War with no end?

To contain the rapidly evolving tragedy, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the AU went into diplomatic overdrive, ostensibly to learn first-hand how and why the situation came to a head, explore avenues for de-escalating tensions, and to secure from the belligerents a cessation of hostilities. Drawing on the lessons from these initial manoeuvres, IGAD convened its first Extraordinary Summit on South Sudan in December 2013. Among others, the Summit created the Office of the Special Envoys for South Sudan (OSESS), comprised of Amb. Seyoum Mesfin (Ethiopia), Gen. Lazaro Sumbeiywo (Kenya) and Gen. Mustafa El Dabi (Sudan), and enjoined the Envoys and their secretariat with the responsibility to find an all-inclusive political solution.

One year after signing an Agreement on the Resolution of the Crisis in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), intermittent fighting continues in the country, with no end in sight. In total, the conflict is entering its fifth year. Sadly, on its first birthday in July 2016, the ARCSS was in the intensive care unit, and by some accounts, even dead. Several reasons can be advanced to explain the short life-span of this Agreement.

First and foremost, the Agreement was uniquely ambitious; even the most solid governments would find it daunting to implement all the provisions of the Agreement within the timeframe provided. Seemingly, the mediators set the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) on course for failure from the very outset. Not only was South Sudan severely broken and teetering on the brink of economic collapse, its lack of human capacity to assume the colossal task did not appear to factor into the mediation logic.

The second, and perhaps most egregious factor is that the Agreement set out to return the country to the pre-conflict status quo, instead of imagining an entirely new future for South Sudan. Prior to the outbreak of conflict, the government in South Sudan ran a power-sharing arrangement crafted to balance power among the three principle regions of the country, namely Bahr El Ghazal, the Equatorias and Greater Upper Nile.  Regrettably, the power-sharing arrangement written into the ARCSS retained the same configuration, fatally ignoring the sharp personal, ethnic and institutional disagreements that had led to the conflict in the first instance. In keeping with the norms barring unconstitutional changes of government on the African continent, the mediators were also under pressure to facilitate the conclusion of an Agreement that safeguarded the sovereign integrity of South Sudan.

Yet, throughout the mediation process, the negotiating parties on all sides appeared to be preoccupied with regaining their pre-war lost glory, rather than craft a future for South Sudan in which every citizen had a stake. Little surprise that this mentality carried on to the Implementation phase of the Agreement, predictably resulting in a return to armed violence. 

By December 2016, it was clear to all that cared to see that the July violence effectively buried the Agreement, when it was followed by the disintegration of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) leadership, rank and file, and the resignation of a senior political party representative from the TGoNU. When signing the Agreement, ten days after other signatories and guarantors had acquiesced to it, President Salva Kiir attached 19 reservations revealing how his government intended to interpret it. From its inception, it was obvious therefore that the regime in Juba intended to selectively implement only aspects of the Agreement that it favoured, undermine those that weakened its position, and exclude those stakeholders who were perceived to be problematic. In other words, the Agreement was in jeopardy from the outset.    

Having co-opted remnants of the SPLM/A-IO, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) essentially neutralised the former, and rendered the Agreement non-binding, when it swore in Taban Deng Gai as the First Vice President (FVP), replacing Riek Machar. By the same token, the institutions created under the Agreement, for example, the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU), the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA) and the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), also became defunct in all but name. Moreover, the JMEC, for instance, now openly sides with the regime in Juba. By “neutralising” the SPLA-IO, the TGoNU eliminated all pretence of “unity” and inclusivity within its ranks. Today, the TGoNU is a medley of like-minded individuals, hardly representative of the country’s diverse social and political fabric. This is a departure from the daring vision of the Agreement, which many within the IGAD region and the international community believed would fundamentally shift the business of governance in South Sudan and restore a semblance of stability.

Although the SPLA-IO has been reduced to a handful of Machar’s lieutenants eking out a living in South Sudan, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the Movement is not by any means a spent force. While the rebellion might be petering out owing to heavy battle losses, defections and general disorder within the leadership of the SPLA-IO, the recent lull in fighting may be a misleading indicator of a slow return to normalcy. If anything, the disintegration of Riek Machar’s faction of SPLA-IO is linked to a matching escalation of rebel activity in the Equatorias, suggesting that a more ominous phase in the conflict might be emerging. Moreover, according to Yasmin Sooka, chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the country is on the brink of genocide. In a statement at the Twenty-Sixth Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the Human Rights Situation in South Sudan, Yasmin observed that mass atrocity takes place, “…against a backdrop of economic instability, an already existing war and a climate in which the “other” is demonised…” 

The role of FVP Taban Deng Gai, the putative leader of the IO within the TGoNU, has a stabilising influence within the government. This notwithstanding, his loyalty to Salva Kiir is historical, save for the brief hiatus during which he chaperoned Riek’s negotiation team. In fact, he is at peace with the TGoNU. For the time being, therefore, the TGoNU might enjoy some confidence in their ability to hold Riek and his motley forces at bay. The current status quo is however untenable, in part because of the disregard for the provisions of ARCSS. In particular, the delay in the implementation of at least four chapters of the Agreement, which provide for a transitional government, permanent ceasefire and transitional security arrangement, transitional justice processes, and a new constitutional order has significantly thwarted any attempts at a political solution. The fact that there are thousands of unaccounted-for SPLM/-IO combatants and several other fighting groups, for example, the White Army, freely roaming South Sudan should likewise give any rational government cause to worry.

Ending the impasse

If the Agreement is dead, how then do we regain our bearings? From the very beginning of the peace process, many commentaries have been offered about how the violence in South Sudan might be ended. Broadly speaking, the suggestions have fallen in three categories: Those that prioritise a human rights lens and therefore proffer a peace with justice approach; those that second a realpolitik approach; and those that believe a technocratic government offers the best possible outcome.

To begin with, a peace with justice approach is a non-starter in a country in which the accountability infrastructure is beholden or indeed run by the very individuals alleged to have committed violations amounting to crimes against humanity. In fact, in South Sudan, the prevailing constitutional order is the handiwork of a select few. Justice is an imperative best delivered by time, perhaps after a durable peace is underway.

Just like peace with justice, the technocratic approach, which has gained new traction, having been floated around immediately after the conflict broke out, is foolhardy, if not outright patronising. While trusteeships might have worked in the immediate post-war era, the situation in South Sudan is far more complex and delicate: The country has just come out of nearly five decades of “external” rule. To impose yet another external administration, whether it be run by the AU or the UN (or a combination of both), can only backfire in such a diverse, psychologically fragile and highly militarised masculine context. Moreover, any trusteeship will immediately be perverted by the same challenge faced by the current regime, namely, the sheer lack of infrastructure to meaningfully deliver services. Which leaves us with the last option, that of realpolitik. 

The way forward

The challenges dogging South Sudan lie not so much in the weakness of the Agreement or indeed complete inability to rule but in the attitudes of the South Sudanese leaders. From the inception of the peace process, one thing was clear: The parties were not committed to genuinely negotiating an all-inclusive resolution to the conflict. Rather, the intention, which is still the prevailing mindset within the GoSS, was to use the peace process as a holding exercise. This strategy, which the international community is yet to comprehend, credited the regime with time to prevaricate over the implementation of the Agreement, and more recently to cleverly delay the deployment of the Rapid Protection Force (RPF).

The audacity of the regime nonetheless stems from the region, in particular, the political backing of the government in Kampala, which also views South Sudan as a buffer against security threats stemming from Khartoum. With the political backing of President Yoweri Museveni, a mind shift in Juba is virtually impossible.


Throughout the peace process, the failure to properly identify a role for President Museveni in the resolution of the crisis in South Sudan has been the missing link.


In fact, throughout the peace process, up until today, the failure to properly identify a role for President Museveni in the resolution of the crisis in South Sudan has been the missing link. He has more leverage over key actors than either Ethiopia or Sudan, or a Kenya which appears unable to define its role in the region. The combination of the intervention of a “respected” regional figure and a genuine national dialogue, appears by far to have the best prospect for ending the mayhem. To make the national dialogue truly national and authentically inclusive, it must be de-coupled from the Jieng Council, and other parties with a direct political stake in the contestations. Otherwise, the current players merely serve as holding mechanisms used by the regime to restore whatever relics of legitimacy it might have lost since the conflict began. And then the AU will sit in another Summit and issue a series of communiqués urging the belligerents to behave!

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Written by New African Magazine

For over 45 years New African provides unparalleled insights and analysis on African politics and economics, via an African perspective, always. With in-depth monthly reports, New African brings Africa closer to the world and is ideal for those looking to gain a better understanding of the most important issues affecting Africa.

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