Terms of Endurance

Can South Sudan reach a peace deal that will actually last?

SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images
SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images

Only two and a half years removed from its birth, South Sudan is in crisis. A dispute between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his former vice president, has quickly taken on ethnic overtones and escalated into widespread fighting, with dire consequences. Over 1,000 people have been killed — perhaps many more — with another 200,000 displaced. The national army has split in two and is essentially fighting itself. Forces loosely aligned with Machar control several key parts of the country, including some oil installations. As a result, the exuberance and optimism that accompanied South Sudan’s independence is all but lost. In its place is fear of another failed state and civil war in the heart of Africa.

Yet there is some hope for the future. Peace talks between delegations representing Kiir and Machar began on Jan. 5 in Ethiopia under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an organization of eight East African countries. So far, the negotiations have focused on securing a cease-fire — a positive first step to bring an immediate end to the killing, destruction, and displacement — and the release of 11 political detainees, senior South Sudanese politicians whom Kiir accuses of participating in an alleged coup attempt led by Machar.

To achieve any real, sustainable peace, however, negotiations need to go well beyond these limited objectives. A narrow, elite bargain between powerful political figures in the divided ruling party won’t be enough. Such a deal would ignore the broader population and its needs, perpetuate the trend of exclusionary and corrupt politics, and do nothing to address root causes of instability. This mistake has been made time and again in Sudan’s violent history and could easily be repeated in South Sudan.

To avoid this outcome, the ongoing negotiations need to adhere to three core principles.

First, there cannot be a simple return to the previous status quo; negotiations need to produce a framework for inclusive governance that addresses the failings of the current political system. Too much blood has already been spilled — trying to turn back would all but ensure the reprise of violence. In recent years, Kiir has strayed from the consensus-building strategies that served him well prior to South Sudan’s independence and has become increasingly reliant on a small group of advisors from his home area. Journalists, NGO workers, and others have been harassed and even killed, calling into question the government’s commitment to democracy and respect for human rights. The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has faltered in its transition from a guerrilla movement to a political party, showing no capacity to manage the growing tensions between its leaders. These issues must be dealt with for peace to last.

Indeed, no short-term agreement will be sufficient if it does not at least begin to address the fundamental problems in South Sudan’s political system and chart a future that will be acceptable to most parties. Successful negotiations should establish a path for South Sudan’s political development that is anchored in the process of developing a permanent constitution. That process, if it is inclusive, transparent, and participatory, can be a vehicle for nation-building and reform.

Second, in developing this path there is a need to reach beyond national political elites and armed militias. South Sudanese civil institutions have to be included. State-level officials must be consulted, engaged, and informed about the agenda, issues, and options for agreement. Members of parliament ought to be briefed regularly and encouraged to update their constituents. Civil society requires full communication: Citizens must be allowed to provide input to negotiators and mediators, and they must be allowed to monitor deliberations. This means holding regular press conferences to inform the media so that radio, newspapers, and social media can help to tamp out misinformation and rumor rather than fuel further violence.

South Sudanese from different segments of society — civil society, religious communities, the business sector — should moreover be physically present during the political process, if not at the table themselves, and then regularly consulted by negotiators and mediators. In past negotiations in Sudan, such as the talks to end violence in Darfur, there have been some efforts along these lines, but they have always had the feel of tokenism. These negotiations are an opportunity to break the trend. Showing that those doing the fighting do not have all the power and that those who resisted the call to arms will play an equally important role in defining South Sudan’s future is crucial to lasting peace.

Third, the international community must play an active role in helping define the long-term peace process and be a substantive participant in it. Governments, regional organizations, NGOs, and concerned individuals around the world have been seized by the crisis and have responded with relative haste. More than 60,000 South Sudanese are already under U.N. protection, and a major increase in U.N. peacekeepers is in the works; the costs of picking up the pieces of the economy and restoring stability will fall heavily on donors. South Sudan’s history, notably the extensive international support for its people’s right to self-determination and pressure on Khartoum to accept the referendum result, also sets it apart from other fragile states. This history places additional responsibilities on the international community, especially the United States, given its strong support for South Sudan. It also puts an additional onus on South Sudan to constructively engage the outside world.

The international community, as guarantors, monitors, donors, advisors, and mentors, must insist that it be a constructive party to how this conflict is brought under control and how South Sudan’s future is defined. During any sort of interim phase that follows the negotiations, a degree of joint South Sudanese-international community administration and management should be instituted. This partnership will be needed to assess the state of the oil sector, the economy, and how damage from the current conflict will be addressed, and the government in Juba should submit its budget and plans for approval to a joint mechanism established for this process. International experts and advisors should also have a formal role in the constitution-making process, as international participation can help reassure various communities about the outcome and prevent elite deal-making that ignores the interests of the general public.

If negotiators and mediators adhere to these three principles, a deal struck has a chance to put South Sudan on a new footing. Many more challenges will await, among them: healing and reconciliation, justice and accountability, and reforming and downsizing the army. But horrific as the violence since mid-December has been, the crisis also presents an opportunity to address unresolved issues and put South Sudan back on the path of democratization, good governance, and peace — a path from which it deviated well before the current crisis.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not take policy positions. A version of this is available as a Peace Brief on

Jon Temin is the director of Africa programs at Freedom House. From 2014 to 2017 he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. Twitter: @JonTemin

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