In December 2017, four years into a ruinous and brutal civil war, key parties to the conflict in South Sudan recommitted themselves to implementing an August 2015 peace deal, and agreed a ceasefire. Although many ceasefire violations have occurred since then, efforts to broker revived power-sharing arrangements continue and the threat of widespread famine has been averted for now.

Could the nightmare soon be over for the South Sudanese people, who have suffered so much since the civil war began in 2013? Sadly, on balance it seems unlikely.

Fractured forces

During 2017, the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) suffered important fractures, most notably the sacking in May of army chief of staff Paul Malong, who eventually went into exile. Last month he formed his own organisation and he now wants to be included in peace talks.

In recent weeks, President Salva Kiir Mayardit has undertaken a government reshuffle raising concerns he is packing it with figures from his home area and reflecting a growing “bunker mentality”. His support base has always been predominantly Dinka, the country’s largest ethnic group. Regional attempts over the last year to try and ‘reunify’ different SPLM factions have not yet borne fruit.

This fracturing has also characterised the opposition side, where former Vice-President Riek Machar (also in exile) does not display much control over armed groups operating ostensibly in his name.

In early 2017, a new armed rebel group, the National Salvation Front, was formed by a combination of government defectors and disillusioned supporters of Machar. It has reportedly found significant support in South Sudan’s three Equatorian provinces, where some feel marginalised in Machar’s Nuer-led rebellion. The Nuer are the country’s second largest ethnic group. Fierce fighting took place in these provinces during 2017.

Independence Day in South Sudan 2011
South Sudan Independence Day Celebration at Diversey Harbor Grove. July 2011. © Daniel X. O’Neil.

A return to power-sharing – or new elections?

In May 2017 the government declared a unilateral ceasefire, which meant little on the ground as fighting continued unabated. A regional body called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development has continued to lead international peace efforts in South Sudan. It hosted the talks at which a ceasefire was agreed in December 2017 and is backing a ‘High Level Revitalisation Forum’ (HLRF), trying to persuade three key parties to the conflict – the government, Riek Machar’s ‘SPLM-In Opposition’ and a group of former SPLM detainees – to revive power-sharing arrangements which collapsed in mid-2016. The government has also been pursuing a parallel ‘national dialogue’ process.

There remain concerns that the warring parties lack real commitment to peace. The next round of HLRF talks is scheduled for May 2018 but Salva Kiir is unwilling to do a deal involving Machar and has pledged to go ahead unilaterally with presidential elections scheduled for 2018 if the talks founder.

International sanctions against parties to the conflict have tightened over the past 12 months.  In October 2017, on a visit to the country, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the US had ‘lost trust’ in Salva Kiir’s government and subsequently called for the imposition of a UN arms embargo against the country.

The UN has been investigating the responsibility for war crimes of leading figures in the conflict. However, to date warnings about punitive action have not really been acted upon as Russia and China continue to limit what can be agreed in the Security Council. The US has taken additional measures of its own – such as imposing sanctions on the state-owned Nile Petroleum Corporation, which advocacy groups claim has been used as a conduit for funds to the military, and introducing an arms embargo. The EU has had an arms embargo in place since 1994.

Shaky friendships and the humanitarian outlook

Meanwhile, neighbouring Sudan has continued to play the role of friend to Salva Kiir. Yet this friendship remains largely contingent on how far it assists in achieving Sudan’s own objectives. For example, according to the International Crisis Group, when the US appeared to be hesitating about lifting sanctions on Sudan in mid-2017, Sudan helped Machar’s faction to launch renewed attacks on government forces in oil-rich Unity State. US sanctions against Sudan have since been scrapped.

A 4,000-strong UN-mandated ‘regional protection force’, intended to bolster the 12,000-strong UN peace-keeping mission in South Sudan, began arriving from August 2017, following significant delays. It has yet to reach quarter-strength and so far it has not deployed beyond the capital, Juba. The South Sudanese government views it with no less suspicion that it does the UN mission.

Although famine hit two areas in 2017, widespread famine was prevented. The situation remains dire and the threat remains real, according to UN agencies which claim that more than seven million people in South Sudan—almost two-thirds of the population—’could become severely food insecure in the coming months without sustained humanitarian assistance’. Civilians still bear the brunt of the conflict. UN officials recently said they were ’appalled‘ by the levels of violence against women and girls.

South Sudan’s economy has been in a parlous state for years. The government is hoping to receive significantly increased oil revenues during the second half of 2018, having largely discharged its debts to neighbouring Sudan under an onerous 2012 agreement which ended a dispute over revenue-sharing. In addition, China has promised a massive injection of reconstruction funds if real peace does return.

Refugees queue for water in the Jamam, South Sudan.
Refugees queue for water in the Jamam camp, South Sudan. © Robert Stansfield/Department for International Development‬.

The most likely future scenario: Protracted violence

There must be real concern that despite ongoing negotiation efforts, the conditions for a meaningful peace in South Sudan currently do not exist.

Some argue that current peace efforts need to become more ‘inclusive’, but that raises difficult questions about where to draw the line. There is also fierce debate about how far to prioritise creating incentives for peace or punishing alleged crimes.  Fundamentally, it remains unclear whether the main parties to the conflict are interested in reaching a credible and sustainable deal based on ‘give and take’. It may be that ‘peace’ is still really ‘war by other means’ for many of South Sudan’s protagonists.  Also unclear is how far regional and international mediators have the will or capacity to help deliver peace.

Given this, perhaps the most likely future scenario (as witnessed in Darfur), is protracted violence, albeit perhaps of ‘lower-intensity’ than during the first phase of the civil war due to continuing peace efforts. Indeed, some scholars have argued persuasively that this has been the dominant scenario across both ‘Sudans’ for decades.

Further reading

South Sudan: Buying off elites to stop fighting won’t work. Here’s what might”, Daniel Akech Thiong, African Arguments [blog], 12 March 2018

South Sudan: April 2017 update, House of Commons Library briefing paper