I was lucky enough to be invited to a roundtable discussion in London, where Ambassador Donald Booth shared his thoughts on South Sudan’s peace process.
At a round table discussion, hosted in London by Chatham House, a British international affairs think-tank, Ambassador Donald Booth, US Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan shared his thoughts on the fragile peace process with a small gathering of diplomats, NGO representatives, journalists and members of the South Sudanese Diaspora in the UK.
Booth was introduced by Mark Durkan, a veteran British Parliamentarian and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan. It is a body that underscores the often understated but enduring commitment of the British for what they commonly refer to as the “Two Sudans”.
During this introduction, Mr Durkan stressed Donald Booth’s long standing relationship with East Africa. Having served as a desk officer in the Office of East African Affairs in his formative years, Booth had gained valuable experience working on diplomatic initiatives in Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. A career diplomat, he then went on to serve as Deputy Director in the Office of Southern African Affairs before becoming Director of West African Affairs, further cementing his credentials as a man who knew Africa intimately.
It was revealing that, in his short talk on the state of the South Sudanese peace process, Ambassador Booth chose to start with the regional stakeholders. And it was here that Booth admitted to one of the few successes, in what he openly acknowledged was an imperfect peace agreement.
According to Booth, very early on, the US came to the realisation that the viability of any peace deal required regional participation. After all, South Sudan’s neighbours were involved in the conflict, with some even going as far as providing overt and covert military support to the warring factions. Having IGAD mediate the negotiations was considered essential to achieving a peace deal. This belief was validated in getting the peace agreement signed in August, despite the reluctance of South Sudanese negotiators.
It was inevitable that comprises would be made. Few observers would dispute that, given the chronic mismanagement of the nation’s economy, South Sudan is in desperate need of financial oversight to prevent the very real prospect of economic collapse. Booth noted, with undisguised disappointment, that during the peace negotiations, financial accountability and transparency were strongly resisted by the regional states. The urge to protect the economic interests, which nearly all the regional states had in South Sudan, was just too strong. It was revealing that South Sudan’s neighbours believe more prudent management of South Sudan’s finances would end up hurting their interests.
Another compromise was the initial aspiration for an all-inclusive peace negotiation that accommodated a wide array of South Sudanese stakeholders. This aspiration quickly gave way in the face of intransigence from the warring parties who insisted that only armed actors had the right to take part in the negotiations. Booth disclosed that on several occasions, the warring parties would state “either they are with me or they are with them” with no political space granted for non-belligerents who nevertheless were directly affected by the civil war. Booth lingered on the Equatorian experience. In his opinion, Equatorians where cynically courted by both sides and even, as in the example of the Governors of the Equatorian states, flown in on occasion to gain advantage during the negotiations.
Indeed, Booth conceded that the political space is still denied to South Sudan’s civil society, its other political parties, and its regional groupings.
Looking ahead, Booth seemed almost resigned to the prospect that peace would be prioritised over justice and accountability. He acknowledged that there was an ongoing debate about the sequencing of peace and justice. Should the emphasis be on sustaining the fragile peace or should justice be pursued at the risk of derailing the peace process? There is no easy answer to this question. And whilst some international stakeholders had declared “mission accomplished” on signing of the August peace agreement, Booth insisted that the US understood it to be a process that was still in progress. He also stated, rather forlornly, that it was still the US position that anyone who is indicted by the hybrid court, and not necessarily convicted, should be barred from further involvement in South Sudanese public life.
It was on reconstruction that Booth spoke with some conviction, perhaps because it is one of the few areas that the US and the wider international community had any meaningful leverage. He described it as simply unacceptable that the warring parties expected international support as their “reward” from donor countries for signing the peace agreement. In his opinion, a new settlement was needed. Conditional donor support could be a powerful tool in forcing South Sudan’s leaders to face their obligations to the long suffering people of South Sudan. Coupled with effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes, which would transition the tens of thousands of poorly skilled soldiers and militiamen into permanently employed civilian life, Booth believed there was a slim chance that South Sudan could be weaned off its militarism and enduring cycle of conflict.
Ambassador Booth had started his talk by re-stating the US aspiration for Sudan and South Sudan, namely: two states at peace internally and at peace with their neighbours. He had gone on to say that South Sudan’s August peace agreement wasn’t a destination at which South Sudan had already arrived, but was a journey that was still in progress. And whilst acknowledging the shortcomings of the agreement, Booth warned that by constantly dwelling on the flaws, stakeholders, both within and without South Sudan, were in real danger of causing it to fail. The failure of the peace process risked becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Unsurprising for a diplomat, Booth ended his talk on a note of optimism. Should the peace hold, there still remained the opportunity to pull South Sudan out of the political quagmire and empower its people to tackle the pressing challenge of development. In this noble endeavour, the US would continue to stand with the people of South Sudan and help them to achieve their aspiration.
The shrewd observer might have detected a warning for South Sudan’s political elite, who seem to be increasingly perceived by the US as almost entirely divorced from the harsh realities on the ground for the average citizen. Either they sign up to this endeavour, or be considered just another obstacle that needs to be overcome.