The Independence Day Nobody’s Celebrating
South Sudan’s peace deal is in tatters, its economy is in free-fall, and violence rages across the world’s youngest country.
NAIROBI — On Saturday, July 9, South Sudan will mark five years of independence, more than half of which has now been spent mired in civil war. That war was supposed to end back in August, when President Salva Kiir signed a power-sharing deal with then-rebel leader Riek Machar, who has since taken up his old post as vice president.
But as the world’s newest nation approaches its fifth birthday, its peace agreement is falling apart. Not only are 2 million South Sudanese still displaced as fighting continues in towns across the country, but virtually every component of the deal has been ignored or subverted.
Under the terms of the August agreement, both sides were supposed to follow a strict timetable for demilitarizing the capital and integrating former rebels into the national army. They were also supposed to form a new three-year transitional government and parliament based on an agreed power-sharing formula while making a series of constitutional reforms, reviving the economy, and forming a special tribunal to try accused war criminals. Aside from the new government that was formed in April, when Machar returned to Juba and 10 of his allies joined the cabinet, none of that has happened.
“We’re one year further, and basically the only tangible thing that we have is the transitional government,” Luuk van de Vondervoort, who served on the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan until June, told Foreign Policy. “Neither side has made a strategic commitment to peace.… It’s clear there is just no genuine interest in implementing this agreement.”
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, when troops loyal to Kiir, mainly ethnic Dinkas, carried out a series of pogroms against Nuer civilians in the capital, igniting a rebellion of Nuer fighters aimed at ousting Kiir from power. Machar quickly assumed leadership of the rebellion, known as the SPLA-IO, and the two sides fought for control of major towns, each carrying out horrific crimes against civilians, including ethnically motivated rapes and murders. Estimates of the number of dead range from tens of thousands to more than 100,000.
The August peace agreement, which came on the heels of a string of battlefield victories by the government, raised hopes that the country could get back on its feet. But 11 months on, very little has changed. Far from demilitarized in accordance with the deal, Juba is actually more heavily armed than before, with troops from both sides stationed in dangerously close proximity. On the evening of July 7, clashes erupted between soldiers loyal to Kiir and Machar’s former rebels, leaving five dead and four wounded.
The transitional parliament has been formed, but it is unable to work due to disagreements over how to select a new speaker. A constitutional review commission hasn’t been set up, and Kiir’s camp is openly hostile to the deal’s provisions for a special war crimes tribunal.
“We are really in [a] dilemma because there is no political will to implement the peace agreement,” said Paul Yugusuk, a Catholic bishop who leads peace initiatives in the southern Equatoria region.
Machar’s chief of staff, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, accuses Kiir’s side of obstructing implementation of the deal. He says Kiir has delayed signing off on the formation of joint commissions to resolve lingering disagreements while ignoring requests by Machar to meet so that the two leaders can discuss how to move forward. “We are basically saying the SPLM is dragging its feet,” he told FP, referring to the faction that remained in government during the war. “The president is the one who should lead this.”
Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for Kiir, rejected allegations that his faction is not willing to see the agreement through. He said semantic differences between the two parties have caused, for instance, delays in establishing bases for the opposing forces outside the capital and selecting a parliamentary speaker. “The sticking point is on the point of interpretation; it is not on the political will,” Ateny told FP.
But as the bickering continues, Kiir’s faction has clearly undermined key components of the agreement. One of the deal’s most important clauses had given Machar’s side control of the governorships of two of the country’s 10 states. But Kiir essentially voided that clause last year by decreeing the 10 states be subdivided into 28 new ones and appointing his own governors to each. The two sides have agreed to resolve the issue through negotiations, but Gatkuoth says Kiir has refused to sign off on a committee to do so.
The peace agreement has also failed to head off another looming crisis: an economy in free-fall. Thanks to massive war spending by the government, the disappearance of about a billion dollars in reserves from the central bank, and a steep drop in oil prices, the country is experiencing nearly 300 percent inflation — the highest in the world — while the South Sudanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value since the beginning of the war. Civil servants haven’t been paid for months, and teachers, doctors, judges, and university professors have all recently gone on strike. Soldiers are openly looting in lieu of payment, and many worry that further economic collapse could spark additional violence.
“The economy is becoming [an] increasingly dominant factor that the agreement just has difficulty dealing with,” van de Vondervoort said.
Most troubling of all is the fighting that continues despite both sides’ commitment to observing a cease-fire. Although the pace of the fighting has slowed in the northeast of the country — the main theater for most of the war — violence has now spread to the country’s south, east, and west. On multiple occasions, Dinka soldiers have attacked non-Dinka ethnic groups, sparking local resistance movements. During fighting in late June in the western town of Wau, for instance, Dinka soldiers allegedly shot indiscriminately at non-Dinka men, women, and children, killing dozens.
“If the government [were] willing to implement the agreement, all this fighting would have not taken place in Mundri, in Wonduruba, in Lobonok, in Kajo Keji, Raja, Wau,” said Yugusuk, referring to a string of towns that have been hit by recent fighting. “I doubt whether this kind of ongoing uprising, if you like, will stop. It will just engulf the [whole of] South Sudan.”
Stalled implementation of the peace deal could also spark renewed fighting in the northeast, where troops from both sides are still deployed. Last month, there was fighting in Unity state; in Upper Nile state, tensions are mounting between a powerful rebel-aligned ethnic Shilluk militia called the Agwelek and pro-government Dinka forces, whom a U.N. investigative committee accuses of ethnically cleansing Shilluks from the state capital, Malakal, over the last year, according to a confidential summary of the committee’s findings seen by FP. In February, the Dinka forces attacked a U.N. base there, killing dozens of displaced people who were seeking refuge.
Meanwhile, the White Army, a Nuer militia that formed the backbone of the SPLA-IO fighting force in 2013 and 2014 but was excluded from the peace negotiations, is also liable to take up arms again because its fighters do not believe Kiir should stay in office, according to John Young, a Small Arms Survey researcher who has studied the militia’s role in the conflict. “These guys aren’t amenable to any kind of power-sharing arrangement. The only thing they’re clear about is getting rid of Salva Kiir as the president and addressing what actually happened in Juba between the 15th and the 18th of December 2013,” he said, referring to the initial anti-Nuer pogroms that kicked off the war.
Many attribute the collapse of the peace deal to the absence of any real consequences for violations on either side. In a case that set the tone for further delay and distraction, Kiir’s 28-state decree elicited no official rebuke from the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), an international body tasked with overseeing the peace deal’s implementation.
“Everybody agreed that 28 states was a mistake, and it was a violation of the agreement, but still they insisted in keeping it without voicing out that, no, this should be stopped; otherwise there is no agreement,” Onyoti Adigo, who leads the Democratic Change opposition party in parliament, told FP.
There has been little serious discussion of sanctions, and the United States, which initiates South Sudan policy at the U.N. Security Council, recently delayed a vote on a proposed arms embargo, even as Kiir’s faction in government allegedly distributed guns to local militias implicated in mass killings in neighboring Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the JMEC, which is charged with monitoring the cease-fire, has chosen to cover up instances where its teams have been harassed while burying a report implicating the government in the deadly February assault on the U.N. base in Malakal.
Casie Copeland, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said intervention by other East African heads of state could potentially salvage the deal but only if they take a hard line on South Sudanese leaders. “We’re past the point of goodwill or vague statements or urging. We’re at a point where we act now, or we’re all going to have to face the consequence of this with a return to war,” she said.
But even a serious regional intervention may not be enough. There is a growing consensus among South Sudan watchers that pursuing a stitch-up between Kiir and Machar, two men with long records of violence and corruption, is doomed to fail no matter what. The country has endured decades of unsuccessful power-sharing deals between the two men — and between others in Sudan and South Sudan — all to no avail.
“It remains very unclear to me why people continue to assume that this type of power sharing would work better than it did in previous years or in previous situations,” said Harry Verhoeven, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “I think the international community … has insisted on [the peace deal’s] implementation out of despair with [Kiir and Machar] as a default approach, not because most insiders actually believe this is a sustainable, effective, and meaningful agreement.”
A return to large-scale fighting would be devastating. The U.N. mission in South Sudan, whose fortified bases have served as a last refuge for hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing violence throughout the war, is now turning people away from its sites after housing them for two-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, the country is facing the worst hunger crisis in its short existence, with some 4.8 million people expected to face severe food shortages over the coming months, according to the World Food Program. As South Sudan marks five years of independence, life in the already failing nation could be about to get much worse.
Photo credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images