A Sustainable Peace in South Sudan

Child with Flag
Child with Flag

Stability is an essential precondition to peacebuilding. But is it right to prioritise stability in South Sudan over prevailing expectations of a sustainable political settlement?

In August, I wrote a blog entry partly in response to a policy brief published by International Crisis Group (ICG) and partly in response to what I perceived to be a worrying policy shift by our international peace partners.

I argued that a focus on stability was not enough for South Sudan. Without a comprehensive political settlement, an engineered stability which favoured the government would fail to achieve its desired outcome – i.e. an environment conducive to peacebuilding.

ICG have recently published another policy brief that reinforces its emphasis on stabilisation, primarily through deeper engagement with the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGONU).

I can’t argue with the call for stability as a precondition for peacebuilding. But I can argue that the stability proposed by ICG would be short-lived and illusory. It would fail to provide suitable foundations for sustainable peacebuilding in South Sudan.

It’s unfortunate that in its recommendations, ICG approaches the challenge of stabilisation and peacebuilding through the lens of the political elite in Juba. This repeats past mistakes at nation building within South Sudan by favouring top-down solutions. Such an approach ignores the profound disconnect between the political elites in Juba and the wider public, especially the rural poor at the periphery.

The South Sudanese people aren’t disempowered observers of the crisis in their own country. They are fundamental players in the conflict and are vital to its eventual resolution.  In this blog entry, I present an alternative reading of the situation in South Sudan. One that’s more people-centric. In so doing, I hope that I may highlight significant challenges that are inadequately addressed in the ICG brief and other, elite-centric publications.

Pushing ahead with the peace process

In a recent statement to the United Nations Security Council, Ban Ki Moon, the outgoing United Nations Secretary General, warned that: “Any attempt to rubberstamp the legitimacy of those in power will not bring peace or stability.” Nevertheless, this is precisely what is being proposed in the interests of stabilisation.

The reconstituted TGONU no longer represents a sufficient quorum of armed actors on the ground. Those who purport to represent the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) within the TGONU have been largely disavowed by the rank and file of that movement.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Government (SPLM-IG) has, in effect, declared its commitment to implementing the peace deal with a non-representative splinter-group as its primary peace partner. Power within the reconstituted TGONU rests overwhelmingly with Salva Kiir and the SPLM-IG. This undermines the credibility of the TGONU as a ‘unity government’. With the noteworthy exception of government loyalists, the TGONU is widely considered to be a political charade. This casts doubt that the peace process can deliver a resolution to the conflict in South Sudan.

Any action undertaken by the TGONU, such as the reconstitution of the transitional national legislature, agreement on the cantonment sites, and agreement on modalities for amalgamating opposition forces into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) are compromised by the inherent exclusivity of the TGONU. These foundational structures are built on sand. Anything layered on top can quickly tumble under the slightest of shocks.

The process of national dialogue

The process of national dialogue proposed by Salva Kiir has been met with scepticism by many South Sudanese. Scepticism has been expressed by supporters of both the government and the opposition. This is significant because the need for national dialogue is something that all South Sudanese, across the political divides, overwhelmingly agree on. So why is there a lack of confidence in this particular initiative?

In a well-researched paper on national dialogue processes, the United States Institute of Peace explores the challenges of using national dialogue as a tool for conflict resolution and political transformation.

The paper recommends that national dialogue processes must incorporate “inclusion, transparency and public participation, a far-reaching agenda, a credible convener, appropriate and clear rules of procedure, and an implementation plan” in order to maximise their chances of success.

At launch, the process proposed by Salva Kiir deviates from these recommendations:

  • The process purposely excludes all opposition, leading some to label it an intra-dialogue or intra-SPLM-IG process.
  • Members of the committee, tasked with setting up and overseeing the dialogue, were appointed by a non-transparent decree. There was no attempt made at wider engagement in the selection process. Consequently, the credibility of the conveners is immediately in doubt.
  • By placing himself as patron, Salva Kiir has signalled that he sits outside of the problem. By doing so, he has already limited the scope of the national dialogue process.

The credibility of the process is crucial to its success. The manner in which the initiative was launched has undermined its credibility. But this is not the only challenge we must consider. The process must also contend with continued insecurity and political repression.

The SPLA has repeatedly demonstrated that it lacks the organisational capacity to engage in a counter-insurgency campaign without resorting to collective punishment and outbursts of extreme brutality. Without a credible ceasefire, it’s unlikely that contested regions will be accessible, let alone amenable, to a dialogue process initiated by the TGONU.

The intensity of political repression in South Sudan is also unlikely to provide an environment suited for genuine dialogue. Openly voicing opposition to the government, even when that opposition is peaceful, can land you in trouble with authorities. Given the difficult economic environment, no one wants to risk their job or career prospects or that of a close relative by speaking out. It’s far safer to stay quite than expose oneself to unwanted attention.

The suppression of the press is well documented. But, when teachers, striking over pay, are arrested and when all copies of a novel, which happens to mention a recent alleged atrocity, are confiscated at the printers by security agents, then it’s easy to understand citizens’ scepticism that the process could usher genuine dialogue.

It is mostly those who are supportive of the government and its policies that have the confidence to speak out. The rest carefully self-censor. This will undoubtedly skew the outcome of the process of national dialogue. In this context, the efficacy of the process is in doubt. Its recommendations will inadequately address the underlying causes of conflict in the country.

Addressing local security dynamics

Side-lining Riek Machar, and the rump SPLM-IO faction, may appear to have strengthened the government’s hand. This could be a flawed misreading of dynamics on the ground. It might just end up extending the duration of conflict by fragmenting opposition and removing the last remaining avenue for a quick end to the conflict.

ICG successfully diagnose the underlying causes of South Sudan’s insurgencies as political, and correctly points out that a military solution will ultimately fail to address them.

Unfortunately, ICG places too much emphasis on a flawed national dialogue process. The proposed process will attempt to isolate and individually address, at the community level, instances of the ongoing violence that continues to seize vast swathes of South Sudan. The process is unlikely to woo armed groups and their communities away from violent opposition.

South Sudanese in contested areas are being asked to take a gamble on the intentions of political leaders described by Ban Ki Moon as having “betrayed the public trust and continue to show a perverse sense of entitlement, seeking to retain power and wealth at all costs”. Precedent has shown that South Sudan’s political and military elite will prioritise their own narrow interests in any given situation, even though this may be deleterious to a sustainable peace. There is scant evidence, at this early stage, that the proposed national dialogue process will buck this trend.

Despite repeated denials by the TGONU, top United Nations officials continue to warn that ethnic cleansing is ongoing. For many communities bearing the brunt of SPLA counter-insurgency operations, the civil war has become an existential threat. In this context, the odds that such a gamble would actually pay off are likely to be calculated as prohibitively low.

Starving the various armed groups of resources is unlikely to drive them all to the negotiating table. Armed groups and their sympathetic communities are more likely to hunker down in preparation for a prolonged period of asymmetric warfare, whilst waiting for a favourable change in the regional dynamic or a change in the wider international community’s attitude to the TGONU or its successor.

Despite the SPLA’s superiority in weapons systems, such a war can be successfully prosecuted, and without support from regional sponsors. As noted in a 2013 article in the US Military Review, “The poorest of peoples can wage war … making creative use of materials and resources at hand and taking advantage of the passage of time to wear down an opponent seeking a quick, clean, and decisive victory.”

Without a credible roadmap for political transformation, South Sudan could be condemned to a long lasting and highly disruptive insurgency.  An insurgency will solicit heavy handed responses from the SPLA. Such responses will undo any positive gains made from a dialogue process and expose the military and its political sponsors to further international pressure and isolation.

Stability might be realised in Juba and in garrison towns throughout the country. But the widespread stability required for sustained peacebuilding will be unachievable. South Sudan may well settle into the kind of long term and debilitating instability we see in Somalia, Chad, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Reversing the economic collapse

It’s easy to under-appreciate the scale of disruption suffered by ordinary South Sudanese as a consequence of the country’s collapsed economy. The global fall in oil prices, declining production and an unfavourable transfer agreement with Sudan, have highlighted the challenges of South Sudan’s over-reliance on this single commodity.

The South Sudan pound, which this time last year officially traded at 8 SSP to the US dollar is now trading at 75 SSP to the US dollar. For a country that is overwhelmingly dependent on imports, this level of devaluation is crippling. South Sudan’s inflation rate has reached 835.7 percent over the past year and shows little sign of abating.

The loss of agricultural output from Equatoria, as a consequence of the war, compounds these stresses. Businesses, in general, are in survival mode. Nearly all have been forced to cut staff and operations to the bare minimum. Wages are paid irregularly and have not kept up with inflation. Households not directly affected by the conflict are buckling under the pressure this has placed on them. It is unlikely that their already hard-pressed coping mechanisms will be able to sustain this level of economic distress for much longer.

While the war continues, and while the TGONU fails to demonstrate a commitment to service delivery and fiscal responsibility, direct budget support will not be forthcoming from international donors.

In evidence presented to the UK parliament’s International Development Committee as part of an inquiry into the instability and humanitarian response in South Sudan, James Wharton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for International Development noted that “with countries like South Sudan, we don’t give direct support to governments.” He went on to say, “We are not talking about a state that is currently focused, from the very top of its political leadership, on the best outcomes for its people or the best development of its economy, particularly at the lower level.”

Nevertheless, the TGONU, boxed in by the insatiable demands of a wartime economy, continues to prioritise spending on the security sector. There is no easy way out of this difficult impasse.

The level of insecurity, both financial and physical, created by the economic collapse is the source of significant discontent with the political leadership of South Sudan. There is rising dissatisfaction with the performance of Salva Kiir, even among his core supporters, as avenues for patronage and clientelism are increasingly eroded.

This raises serious questions about the sustainability of the TGONU and its probable successor government, should Salva Kiir win the planned 2018 elections under dubious conditions, as is widely expected. Discontent, born this time out of a seemingly intractable economic crisis, will likely be afforded no political space for legitimate expression.

In a 2014 paper, Alex de Waal explored South Sudan’s so called “kleptocracy”. He quoted a South Sudanese commentator who warned that when people “become so poor, desperate, unable to speak, insecure and above all when they lose trust in their leadership? Such is the stuff with which civil unrests, protests, and even outright revolutions are made.”

By ignoring the societal impact of the failing economy, and the need for profound political transformation to adequately address it, we could be sowing the seeds, today, for tomorrow’s political instability and violence.

Intercommunal tension

Perhaps the most pernicious challenge facing South Sudan is the breakdown in intercommunal relations, which has long since reached crisis levels. Despite its increasing influence within South Sudan, this is barely addressed in the ICG brief.

In an address to senior party cadres at the official registration of the SPLM, President Salva Kiir acknowledged that the SPLA had become reliant on the Dinka community for recruitment. The SPLA is also dependent on a Dinka paramilitary group, known as the Mathiang Anyoor, to bolster its capabilities in areas, such as Equatoria, which are far from where its recruits are sourced. This paramilitary group has been implicated in atrocities, including the massacre of Nuer civilians in Juba in December 2013.

Government forces consistently fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians. The SPLA often seeks to “drain the pond” of support for armed groups by targeting civilians perceived as sympathetic to them, leading to accusations of ethnic cleansing. Most attacks on civilians go undocumented. Recent exceptions are this November’s massacres in Kwerijik Bungu payam near Juba, and in Pukaka village near Yei town. Similarly, indiscriminate reprisal attacks against Dinka civilians, inspired largely by the ethnic imbalances in the make-up of government forces, have led to displacement which must also be considered ethnic cleansing.

Within this context, hate speech, coupled with derogatory and dehumanising name calling practiced by all sides, is on the rise. In his November briefing to the UNSC, Adama Dieng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on prevention of genocide said that he was dismayed that what he saw and heard in South Sudan confirmed his concerns that there is a strong risk of violence escalated along ethnic lines with the potential for genocide.

Intercommunal violence is already at play in South Sudan. Substantial changes to this dynamic are urgently needed to reverse the slide to a more egregious form of intercommunal violence. Some South Sudanese have called such warnings alarmist and politically motivated. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that many of the factors for genocide are worryingly present in South Sudan. It’s worth highlighting that genocide in South Sudan need not express itself in the same way as it did in Rwanda, Darfur, or the Balkans, though the outcome would be the same.

Trapped in the logic of its liberation-era ideology, and trapped by the pressing need to ensure its own survival, it is unlikely that the TGONU or its successor government, will be prepared to take the bold steps needed to address the challenge of intercommunal tension. This leaves the people of South Sudan dangerously exposed to the cynical manipulations of politicians eager to play on ethnic tensions for political gain. Should we become too complacent, we South Sudanese, along with our regional neighbours, might find ourselves caught out by a sudden and tragic escalation in intercommunal violence.

The regional interest

Prioritising stability is an appealing proposition for a politically unstable region which, on the whole, is distinguished by a democratic deficit and a lack of grassroots engagement and participation in the political process.

Pursuing a stabilisation agenda, made unsustainable by the lack of a credible political process, would be ultimately unproductive. Such a gamble may buy a little time, enabling each neighbouring country to focus on their own pressing internal crises. But it won’t address the fundamental structural problems at the heart of the conflict in South Sudan. Neither does it provide a satisfactory resolution to the regional tug of war for influence over South Sudan and its resources. At best, a sustainable solution is deferred. At worst, new challenges that intensify the instability in South Sudan, and the wider region, are introduced.

Finally, a stability that fails to secure a comprehensive cease-fire, will not ease the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, and its associated refugee challenge. It is unlikely to win much needed financial support from Western donors. Without that support, any initiative is unlikely to get off the ground.

A laser focus must be kept on an inclusive and people-centric political settlement as the best mechanism for achieving a sustainable resolution to the crisis in South Sudan. There may not be the political will for an inclusive settlement in Juba. There may not be the international will to renegotiate a fresh peace deal. Nevertheless, these challenges should not be used to convince stakeholders to the crisis in South Sudan that just because we need to settle, we should settle for a perpetuation of an unworkable status quo.


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