With diplomats in Juba considering watering down ARCSS to prevent a return to widespread conflict, it begs the question: is stability enough for South Sudan?
In a visit to London in July 2015, Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban met with the local South Sudanese Diaspora. He had a simple message for all of us who were present. It was our obligation to do what we could to alleviate the suffering of our fellow countrymen and women in the homeland. He asked us to speak out about South Sudan and mobilise what resources we could. He also strongly urged us to refrain from incitement to division and violence.
I have taken great care to follow the Bishop’s advice, although I must admit, at times I have been thoroughly tested. War is a terrible business. Civil war is even worse. Nothing degrades a country more than sustained internal conflict. Besides the death, displacement, division and human suffering, civil war consumes a nation’s resources and ravages its assets at a frightening pace. It also gnaws away at the nation’s morality. Atrocities, once thought unconscionable, become commonplace and excusable in the overriding pursuit of victory. It is not my place, safe as I am from the bullets and the bombs, to encourage others to risks that I do not share. And so, it is with more than a little trepidation that I approach this delicate subject.
Last week, International Crisis Group published a commentary entitled South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse. Some South Sudan observers were baffled by the commentator’s use of the official government narrative (without caveat) to explain the outbreak of violence in early July. I was more concerned by the central narrative of the commentary: “The UN should … work with other IGAD-PLUS members to re-assess how the ARCSS can be realistically implemented in a manner that increases stability given the shift in dynamics in-country.” The commentary goes on to suggest: “A key aspect of the ARCSS is the devolution of power, some of which is still possible. IGAD-PLUS should coordinate its efforts with the transitional government to devolve power in line with the agreement’s power-sharing ratios to disaffected groups and communities who hoped to benefit from the agreement.”
In essence, the commentary contends that, given new facts on the ground, the international community must accept that ARCSS will only be partially implemented. To create the conditions for peace-building, they need to prioritise stability. The conclusion is that stability is more likely to be achieved if the international community works with the transitional government as currently configured i.e. with Taban Deng Gai occupying the First Vice President’s seat in place of Riek Machar Teny. Taban Deng Gai has demonstrated that he is willing to implement ARCSS “along lines far more favourable to the wartime government than originally envisioned.” It’s worth noting here that my concern isn’t about the specific political personalities involved. My concern is over the compromises the international community might be tempted to make to achieve stability, at all costs, as a necessary precondition to peace. I think such an approach ignores the central dynamic of the conflict in South Sudan and may only serve to postpone renewed conflict by failing to address its underlying drivers. The transitional government, as currently configured, gives the impression that it will prioritise a return to the status quo before the 2013 civil war as its vision for peace. Consequently, the gamble of finding a lasting political solution under such conditions has low odds of success.
The people of South Sudan continue to suffer a failed political leadership, which is widely condemned by citizens of all communities, as incredibly corrupt and hopelessly inept. It’s worth reminding the reader that political personalities, whether in government or in opposition, once composed this political leadership, and are doing so again in the context of the transitional government. It may be conceded that the challenges facing South Sudan at independence were immense. But under this leadership, we have witnessed widespread looting of state resources, rolling conflict, growing repression, rising ethnic tension and dramatic economic collapse. A nation that came into being without debt, and with the benefit of substantial oil reserves, is now reduced to begging its neighbours for food supplies, whilst paying out millions on weaponry, public relations and foreign mercenaries. The survival of the regime and its enabling patronage networks has been and will continue to be the overriding priority of the leadership.
Behind this lies a powerful sense of entitlement described by Christopher Clapham in his analysis on the transition from liberation movement to government: “The struggle confers – in the minds of former fighters – a virtually permanent claim on state power. This claim may readily trump alternative legitimations for rule, and notably those derived from actual performance in government. The movement’s members … assume that the popular support derived from the promise of liberation conveys a permanent and unconditional attachment, and that rival politicians who seek to criticise its performance in office can consequently have no public support, and must therefore be suppressed by whatever means control of the state allows.”
Indeed, facing rising dissatisfaction and discontent, and starting before the 2013 civil war, the leadership has maintained its, arguably tenuous, grip on state authority through violence and coercion. In a recent interview with Voice of America, Auxiliary Bishop Santu Laku Pio, noted that, “Our people are living in total fear with harassment going on in town. People are not free as being portrayed by the media. Even some are afraid within the government system. It is better to be dead than alive in South Sudan right now.” He went on to describe how a catholic church in Lafon was torched by government forces.
The stability that the ICG commentator posits, and which the international community may well accept, would be a stability enforced by repression. This in itself would be unpalatable for many South Sudanese and will likely be resisted. The sustainability of such a stability is therefore doubtful.
A 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies looking at the transition from stability to peace, acknowledges that success is rarer than failure. It identifies two conditions for stability. Stability can be achieved when: (a) the direct parties to the conflict are cohesive enough to command their combatants to stop fighting; and (b) their foreign patrons are pressuring them to do so.
It appears unlikely that the transitional government, as currently configured, can exercise enough control over combatants to put an end to fighting. The spread of the insurgency to Equatoria and Western Bahr-el-Ghazal, two regions historically hostile to the SPLA, brings its own implications for initiatives to woo rebellious commanders back into the fold. Given rising regional instability, it is also improbable that the regional powers, especially Sudan and Uganda, would be prepared to lose any leverage by weakening or cutting support to their clients.
Should the international community put all their chips behind a transitional government that seeks to restore the inherently unstable pre-war status quo, then the conditions for peace-building may never be achievable. A victorious leadership in Juba, now with international affirmation, will focus on pacification that will undoubtedly lead to more atrocities and displacement. For all its faults, an undiluted ARCSS presents the best opportunity for a sustainable peace by ensuring comprehensive reform that tackles the underlying causes of conflict in South Sudan. Instead of giving up, the international community should double down on its commitment to ARCSS as the best chance for a lasting political solution.
It’s true that international relations will make this difficult. But, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, the most expedient approach is rarely the most successful. Re-socialising rebels back into the elite is not enough for South Sudan. The problem is systemic. Any solution that doesn’t have systemic change at its heart, will struggle to achieve tangible results. The prospects may very well be relative stability in Juba and perpetual conflict elsewhere. The consequences for the overwhelming majority of South Sudan’s long suffering citizenry will be catastrophic.