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In August 2015, under strong pressure from the international community, President Salva Kiir Mayardit (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) and his former Vice-President Riek Machar (Sudan people’s Liberation Movement In-Opposition) signed a peace agreement which, it was hoped, would end a ruinous and brutal civil war that had raged between forces allied with the rival men since December 2013. What began as an elite political crisis had begun to take on an ethnic dimension: Salva Kiir is Dinka, South Sudan’s largest ethnic group; Machar is Nuer, its second largest group.

Over the following months, with trust in short supply, progress towards implementing many parts of the peace agreement was painfully slow.

Then, in mid-July 2016, fighting again broke out between them in the capital. Machar and his troops rapidly fled Juba; soon afterwards, he went to Khartoum. Salva Kiir, who some have accused of deliberately initiating the fighting, declared that Machar had vacated his position and later in the same month unilaterally replaced him. In September 2016, Machar declared that he had returned to armed rebellion. Fighting erupted again in many parts of the country, accompanied by a mounting humanitarian crisis.

At the end of 2017 there was another potential turning-point when key parties to the conflict – including Salva Kiir and Riek Machar – recommitted themselves to implementing the 2015 peace agreement (or ARCSS) and agreed a ceasefire. This is known as the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.

This ushered in renewed efforts to revive the 2015 peace agreement’s power-sharing arrangements. Negotiations culminated in Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signing an updated peace agreement in Addis Ababa called the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) on 12 September 2018. The revitalised peace agreement sets out political and security benchmarks to be met before a transition to a comprehensive peace could begin. That transition will begin once a new TGNU has been established.

The R-ARCSS is officially viewed as a major step along the way to a comprehensive final deal. But the omens remain mixed. The ceasefire that came into effect at the end of June has often not been honoured. Although the overall trend has been towards reduced violence, there have been numerous spikes and the downward trend could easily go into reverse permanently.

There has been fighting between signatories to the R-ARCSS, as well as between government forces and rebel groups outside the agreement. A new and disturbing factor has been attacks on official ceasefire observers.

In December 2018, the International Crisis Group called the R-ARCSS the latest in a series of failed peace efforts in South Sudan, amounting to no more than “peace on paper.” It added: “a broader political settlement that shares power across the country’s groups and regions is needed.”

There are growing concerns about the lack of implementation of key elements in the R-ARCSS. The new TGNU is supposed to be in place by May 2019 but that deadline looks increasingly likely to be missed. A new Boundaries Commission intended to address the issue of South Sudan’s future federal character has not yet been established.

In early March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reported to the Security Council that the ceasefire was largely holding but that the “situation remains fragile”. He said that 400,000 people had died since civil war broke out in 2013. He added that more than seven million people (just under two-thirds of the population) are “severely food insecure” – a worse humanitarian situation than a year ago.

The persistent failure of peace efforts to date in South Sudan raises questions about whether the main protagonists believe, despite their protestations to the contrary, that they ultimately have more to gain from continuing violence and conflict.

There remains much scepticism about the intentions of these protagonists amongst Western countries, which have pushed in recent years for targeted sanctions against some (but not all) of those viewed as obstructing peace efforts. After several years of attempts, they have also been successful in securing a UN arms embargo on South Sudan.

A better future for South Sudan depends on more than a political change of heart by its leaders –or even a change of leaders. Most experts argue that South Sudan’s rentier political economy, which remains heavily reliant on oil revenues and foreign aid, must change too.

Reconfiguring such a political economy to one in which the relationship between state and citizen is based on a degree of trust and accountability will take a long time to achieve. In the meantime, even if current peace efforts do persist, the temptation will remain considerable for South Sudanese dissatisfied with their lot – whether motivated by greed, grievance or a combination of both – to resort to violence in pursuit of their goals.

The expert Alex de Waal has argued that this sort of ‘permanent emergency’ has been the norm in both Sudans for decades. Given all this, South Sudan is likely to see continued violence and instability for years to come, although (as has been seen in Darfur) the degree of intensity may wax and wane over time.


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