South Sudan’s Proposed Unity Government Is Still Divided

Another delay won’t help achieve lasting peace. What the world’s youngest country needs is an exit strategy for its old-guard leaders.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir arrives at Juba international airpor
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir arrives at Juba international airport before announcing the extension of the pretransitional period for 100 days on Nov. 8. PETER LOUIS/AFP via Getty Images

The second deadline for forming a unity government in South Sudan—part of the second peace agreement in the last four years—has been pushed back by 100 days. According to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, brokered by neighboring countries between civil war belligerents, a new unity government should have been formed by Nov. 12, comprising the current government led by President Salva Kiir, the main armed opposition movement led by Riek Machar, and several other armed groups. But after the president of Uganda hosted a meeting with Kiir and Machar, all parties agreed to the delay, despite U.S. and international pressure to meet the deadline.

However, the logic underpinning the new agreement is flawed, and the recent push by the United States and others for the parties to adhere to the Nov. 12 deadline was potentially destabilizing. Despite the brief reprieve provided by the delay, pressuring Machar to return to Juba without progress on three unresolved issues—the integration of security forces, security arrangements in Juba, and the politically sensitive process of determining internal state boundaries—risks setting the stage for a repeat of the violent clashes between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar in Juba, the capital, in 2013 and 2016.

For those following South Sudan’s short, turbulent history, there’s an inescapable sense of having been here before: not only the key protagonists endlessly circling each other, but also the United States and international community employing the same diplomatic modus operandi, despite the failure of peacemaking in South Sudan since the country’s independence in 2011.

The new, “revitalized” peace agreement, signed in September 2018, was the product of yet another series of negotiations and burst of international attention. It was originally met with skepticism by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway—known to the South Sudanese and others as the Troika for their longstanding leadership on issues concerning Sudan and South Sudan—who expressed concern “that the arrangements agreed to date are not realistic or sustainable.” Still, the agreement has been the basis for a significant reduction in fighting and increased civilian security and agricultural productivity—no small feat after a civil war estimated to have led to almost 400,000 deaths. The Troika now holds up the revitalized agreement as the only way forward, despite a number of flaws.

The planned unity government would be the third attempt for Kiir and Machar to share power at the top of the South Sudanese government. Upon South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, Kiir assumed the presidency, having previously served as president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan. Machar, who had split from Kiir’s armed faction in the 1990s but reconciled in 2002, was his vice president until mid-2013, when Kiir sacked his cabinet and Machar. Political tensions mounted as senior leaders from the ruling party challenged Kiir’s leadership, and by December 2013 Juba was a tinderbox. A clash between soldiers loyal to Kiir and those loyal to Machar led to ethnically targeted attacks against Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer. Fighting quickly spread beyond Juba and escalated into an all-out civil war, with Machar leading a rebellion that essentially split the country in two.

In August 2015, after many rounds of negotiation, the original Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan was signed, allowing Machar to return to Juba and to his post as first vice president. After delays and additional negotiations concerning his security detail, Machar returned in April 2016. But his stay was brief. In July of that year, Kiir and Machar’s forces clashed in the city again, and again Machar fled. He trekked southwest, through a part of the country that had largely been spared in the first years of the war, but not since, with government forces seeking to kill him along the way. Machar ended up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then in exile in South Africa and Sudan.

Machar is a political entrepreneur who readily uses violence to achieve his goals, but his concerns about his security in Juba are credible, and he represents constituencies that have to be part of any future dispensation. International calls for him to return before adequate security is established or suggestions that a proxy can take his place are not helping resolve the situation.

International calls for opposition leader Machar to return to South Sudan before adequate security is established or suggestions that a proxy can take his place are not helping resolve the situation.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Knight Craft said last month that the Security Council was “disappointed” when Machar indicated he would not return by Nov. 12 and warned of renewed violence. But insisting that he return without sufficient security arrangements in place risks another explosion in Juba, which would shatter the temporary stability found under the new peace agreement, or Machar’s alienation from the peace process, making outreach to the constituencies he represents even more difficult. A further fracturing of the opposition that Machar loosely oversees would undermine prospects for stabilizing the country, as would any efforts by Kiir to replace Machar with a more pliable opposition figure.

The United States claims to be committed to a unity government being formed, but it has done little to shape that outcome. Washington and its partners in peacemaking in South Sudan, both in the West and in the region, engage in a flurry of diplomatic activity when negotiations near conclusion or key deadlines approach, but they do little of the sustained oversight of agreement implementation that is needed to stay on track.

This was the case following the 2015 agreement, and again with the 2018 agreement. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the East African regional bloc that has served as the chief mediator in South Sudan, has been mostly absent since pushing through the 2018 agreement, notably failing to appoint a chair for the agreement oversight body.

Now the United States, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and others are reasserting themselves once more surrounding peace agreement deadlines. Following the new delay, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted, “We must review our relationship with the government in light of the delay. The U.S. is considering all possible options to put pressure on those individuals who would impede peace and promote conflict.”

Criticizing the external push for a unity government to be formed on Nov. 12 while the broader agreement’s implementation remains stalled, a coalition of South Sudanese civil society organizations recently warned that it “is deeply concerned that instead of impressing upon the parties the need to consistently and fully implement agreed tasks of the peace agreement, some regional and international bodies are encouraging them to selectively implement provisions of the [deal].”

The reality is that with either iteration of the peace agreement, there has been little will among the signatories to implement it. In both 2015 and 2018, the parties were under extreme international pressure to sign a deal, so they did. But the cardinal rule of peacemaking is that outsiders can’t want peace more than the belligerents, and for years it has been clear that Kiir and Machar are not interested in compromise.

Their behavior now and lack of effort to adhere to peace agreement timetables and requirements only hardens that reality. The United States has responded with escalating pressure through sanctions, built on the theory that increasing the pain felt by massively corrupt individuals and those responsible for gross human rights violations will change the leaders’ incentives.

Sanctions can play a role when connected to a broader strategy but will not make an equitable, sustainable peace any more appealing to the key belligerents. Kiir and Machar are fighting for their political and personal survival, with both desperate to avoid ending up in front of a tribunal to account for violence carried out under their command. The original peace agreement called for the formation of a hybrid court run jointly by the African Union and the government of South Sudan to try those most responsible for violence in South Sudan’s civil war, and that call is maintained in the new agreement.

If Washington is serious about peace in South Sudan, it can start by publicly recognizing that Kiir is not a legitimate president. He has never been elected president of independent South Sudan, the mandate from his election in 2010 to the leadership of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan expired in 2015, and on his watch hundreds of thousands of his fellow South Sudanese have perished due to violence, starvation, and other factors exacerbated by the civil war.

U.S. policy has consistently favored Kiir over Machar, even though Kiir bears much of the responsibility for lack of agreement implementation, and it risks doing so again with rhetoric that pressures Machar to return to Juba prematurely, setting him up to take the blame if a unity government isn’t formed. The fact of the matter is that Kiir is ensconced as the head of government for now, and the recent gains in stability should be maintained. But publicly acknowledging that his position is not based on the will of South Sudanese would help level the playing field and set the stage for what should be the broader goal: the departure of both Kiir and Machar from South Sudanese politics so the country can move forward.

The United States should do more than swoop in with pronouncements and threats. It should reengage the region in a concerted, sustained effort to first seek resolution to the thorny issues of integrating security forces and settling internal boundaries, enabling Machar to return to Juba. Then, the United States and its regional partners need to devise an exit strategy for Kiir and Machar that opens space for the next generation of South Sudanese leaders.

This includes encouraging a conversation not just about how the unity government begins, but about how it ends—and how elections scheduled for 2022 can be free and fair and facilitate the transition away from the current cadre of leaders, who have done so much damage to the country. All this will require diplomatic heavy lifting as Washington is distracted by its own political divisions at home, and when it pays attention to this part of Africa, it is focused on fast-paced developments in neighboring Sudan. But by dragging their feet yet again on implementation of another peace agreement, Kiir and Machar continue to prove their inability to lead.

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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