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Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal

Even as they publicly support the pact, many privately think it is built on a house of cards and will be pulled down by the country’s bloody past.

A woman carries goods near U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan.
A displaced woman carries goods as United Nations Mission in South Sudan peacekeepers patrol near Juba on Oct. 4, 2016. Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP via Getty Images

South Sudan’s latest peace deal will likely not stop the country’s bloody conflict, according to more than a dozen officials and experts, raising questions about the seriousness of the international community’s effort to end a brutal cycle of violence in the East African nation. 

Many of these observers say the deal backs effectively the same power-sharing formula to end the country’s civil war that has repeatedly failed before, which they say highlights South Sudan’s tragic arc from an international success story to a chronic diplomatic catastrophe.

“Nothing really has changed,” one senior European diplomat told Foreign Policy.

The Feb. 22 creation of a coalition government between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former deputy-turned rebel leader Riek Machar was meant to end a deadly conflict that began in 2013. But even if the two men adhere to their pledges, their legacy will all but ensure continued violence and corruption, these officials and observers say.

Since civil war broke out, there have been dozens of cease-fires and peace deals between the two men that have successively collapsed. Despite this, top United Nations officials and Western governments have publicly praised the latest peace deal with tones of cautious optimism.

The deal has “moved the country further along the road to sustainable peace,” top U.N. envoy David Shearer said. “We welcome the fact that the government and opposition parties have made the necessary compromises to allow this important step,” the U.S., British, and Norwegian governments said in a joint statement on Feb. 23.

Privately, other American and Western officials cast doubt on the very foundations of the peace deal and complain that the United States has no strategy to find another path to peace if this one fails.

But privately, other American and Western officials cast doubt on the very foundations of the peace deal and complain that the United States has no strategy to find another path to peace if this one fails.

“There is no reason to suggest that the same power-sharing agreement that has failed so many times will work,” said Payton Knopf, a former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “I am unable to describe what U.S. policy is in South Sudan,” Knopf said.

U.S. officials have discussed a range of options if the deal falls through again, including sanctioning more senior South Sudanese government officials, downgrading diplomatic relations, and even de-recognizing the government of South Sudan as potential options. Some experts in the region worry it’s not enough.

“Before this, we didn’t seem to have a plan beyond, ‘Let’s throw more sanctions at these guys,’” said one U.S. official. “Now that the government has been formed, I also don’t think there’s a plan. What are we pushing for, what are we focused on now? It’s still unclear.”

“We hope that genuine leadership will be shown on all sides and that the peace process will continue moving forward,” a State Department spokesman said when asked for comment. “If progress stalls, however, the United States will use all available tools, including sanctions, to promote accountability for those who deny peace and progress to the South Sudanese people,” he added.

U.N. peace keepers patrol Malakal, South Sudan, on March 4, 2014..

U.N. peacekeepers patrol Malakal, South Sudan, on March 4, 2014. Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The latest coalition government between the two feuding leaders began last week when Machar returned to the capital of Juba and was appointed one of Kiir’s vice presidents. That came after Pope Francis sponsored a mediation between Kiir and Machar in his private Vatican residence last April, and many analysts say the meeting drove the two leaders to continue talks.

When it first gained independence in 2011, South Sudan was heralded as a major U.S. diplomatic achievement. The East African nation was shepherded into existence by the administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and backed by a coalition of high-profile activists and conservative Christian lawmakers in Congress. (South Sudan’s decadeslong struggle for independence was often viewed from the outside as a fight by the primarily Christian south against a hard-line Islamist government in Khartoum.)

But if U.S. efforts to help South Sudan gain independence marked the high point of Washington’s diplomacy, then its subsequent disengagement from South Sudan is the story of a superpower unable—or unwilling—to stop the monster it helped create.

Two years after independence, South Sudan fell into a bloody civil war largely along ethnic lines. Some 400,000 people have died, and both government and rebel forces are accused by human rights groups of war crimes. The conflict has also fueled famine-like conditions, making the impoverished East African country one of the largest focuses of humanitarian relief in the world.

The story of South Sudan’s latest unstable government begins with the collapse of the last peace deal in 2016. A short-lived unity government between Machar and Kiir ended with an explosion of violence in July of that year. Government soldiers rampaged through the streets of Juba. Rebel forces were battered by tanks and helicopters. Machar fled on foot to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Diplomatic missteps by the U.S. may have compounded the country’s crisis, some current and former State Department officials say.

Diplomatic missteps by the United States may have compounded the country’s crisis, some current and former State Department officials say. One example they cite is from August 2016. During a press conference in Kenya that month, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sidelined Machar as the country’s recognized rebel leader and backed his former deputy, Taban Deng Gai, as the country’s official opposition leader. It meant that Machar, who commanded the rebel army, was no longer part of the country’s peace deal.

The announcement “was essentially the death knell of the transitional government and loudly reinforced our partiality to Kiir,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department official and author of a forthcoming book on South Sudan, The Dissent Channel. “There was nothing other players in the international community could do at that point to walk it back, and it was confirmation to Kiir he could continue a hard-line approach without consequence.”

The incident marked the last sustained diplomatic effort by the Obama administration on South Sudan. Afterward, talks once again broke down, fueling another wave of violence. One million people fled to neighboring Uganda by August 2017 amid U.N. warnings about the risk of ethnic cleansing and famine. 

When U.S. President Donald Trump came into office, the administration continued supporting talks between Kiir and Machar, though Africa was largely on the foreign-policy back burner for an administration focused on Iran, North Korea, and China. Most of the engagement on South Sudan was at lower levels—the administration’s top State Department post on Africa sat empty for over 16 months—with the exception of Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017 and 2018.

Haley visited South Sudan in October 2017, and the following year she helped pushed through a U.N. arms embargo on the country. “She got tough on the government. … She was willing to push forward the arms embargo,” said one U.S. official.

But the embargo and diplomatic pressure weren’t enough to push Kiir and Machar toward a power-sharing deal at the time. Peace talks floundered. Fighting continued. U.S. officials privately grew more exasperated with South Sudan’s leaders, and the Trump administration began prodding other governments in the region to take a lead on brokering peace instead.

East African nations began a slow and bumbling effort to solve South Sudan’s civil war in 2018. Sudan began to mediate a peace deal. In September 2018, another peace deal between Kiir and Machar was signed in Ethiopia, but setbacks continued. 

For years, Machar had refused to return to South Sudan. An opposition negotiator told Foreign Policy that, until the most recent deal was struck, Machar was worried about going to Juba because of the threat of assassination—he had already survived one attempt in 2016. Kiir’s gerrymandering of the number and boundaries of states in South Sudan was another stumbling block. Increasing the number of states the country was divided into was a way for him to exert power and give political allies posts as governors. 

Yet the fledgling peace deal was boosted by an invitation for Kiir and Machar to visit the Vatican in April 2019. The warring leaders went to Pope Francis’s private chapel for mediation. “We all wrote down what the spirit ministered to us,” recalled Bishop Precious Omuku, the special representative on conflict in sub-Saharan Africa for the archbishop of Canterbury. On the last day, the Pope joined the group. Cloaked in white, Francis kissed the feet of Kiir and Machar. “Resolve your problems,” Francis told the men. The holy retreat had an impact, several analysts and Western officials say. In the following months, Kiir glowingly recalled the papal visit to Western diplomats. 

Soon, Machar made more regular visits to Juba. The peace deal was becoming more realistic despite missed deadlines. A Western diplomat said that regional efforts to solve the country’s peace deal increased in November 2019, particularly after South Africa’s Deputy President David Mabuza became more involved.

During those months, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do more to break the deadlock in South Sudan, frustrated by the impasse and seeming inaction from the United States. In January, the State Department brought W. Stuart Symington, a seasoned career diplomat, out of retirement and named him special envoy on South Sudan.

That same month, the United States sanctioned Taban Deng Gai—the same official Kerry once touted in 2016 as the country’s rebel leader—accusing him of “serious human rights abuses.” Some saw the sanctions as an effective shot across the bow at Kiir and Machar, signaling that the United States would target them next if they didn’t form a unity government. 

Diplomats believe that Kiir’s early February decision to reduce the number of states in South Sudan from 32 to 10, plus three administrative areas, was a significant concession that removed Machar’s justifications to avoid returning to South Sudan.

Machar returned to Juba and was officially sworn in as the country’s first vice president on Feb. 22. It was the start of a new coalition government—one with a similar power-sharing formula that had twice failed.

“There are assertions by all parties that it’s different this time, assertions which have to be tested and watched very carefully,” a senior U.S. official said last month.

A senior U.S. official expressed cautious optimism that the latest deal may have a better chance of working than previous ones, in a briefing to reporters late last month. “One of the signs that this is different than before, there are assertions by all parties that it’s different this time, assertions which have to be tested and watched very carefully,” the official said.

The peace deal is “more inclusive than the other one,” the official said. “There’s five major parties to this peace agreement, and some of those are umbrellas that include many more parties.” (Some experts question how inclusive the deal is, however. The agreement does not include the rebel group in the Equatorian region led by Thomas Cirillo, for example.)

Amid the controversial peace deal, experts and diplomats predict the cycle of violence won’t end. The root causes of conflict that include access to resources and land disputes are ongoing, and roughly 4 million people have been forced from their homes—either internally displaced or fleeing to neighboring countries—according to the U.N. 

An opposition negotiator told Foreign Policy there has been no progress in talks with the government over how ministry positions will be divided, among other important issues. Others are wary of whether the rival factions can successfully integrate militias that had been fighting for years under one unified command. 

Millions of dollars in state revenue routinely vanish in what amounts to the systematic swindling of South Sudan’s public budget, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Millions of dollars in state revenue routinely vanish in what amounts to the systematic swindling of South Sudan s public budget, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council, just one instance of what the body said was evidence of how the East African government has engaged in “acts that amount to economic crimes.”

For October and November 2019, 80 percent of the country’s non-oil income was diverted to the country’s National Revenue Authority, funds that “do not reach the Government,” according to a recent report from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The pilfering of public funds was not unique to those months and potentially amounted to some $36 million, according to the report.

Some $10 billion has been spent on aid in South Sudan since 2011, almost half of which has been provided by the U.S. government. But a flurry of reports and statements from aid workers highlighted how urgent changes in the international approach to South Sudan are required.

An internal report from the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, said that South Sudan’s government gains a “significant part” of its international legitimacy because of the international humanitarian operations propping up the government. “Assistance disproportionately benefits the government in Juba, both financially and politically,” according to the report, reviewed by Foreign Policy.

“In contrast to Syria, for example, there is virtually no debate in policy and donors circles about the moral hazard of undertaking reconstruction and development in South Sudan where one side won militarily and is accused of war crimes and there is no real political settlement,” Knopf, the former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan, said.

For now, diplomats watch and wait, bracing for bad news to hit again. “Ultimately, the problem is this is yet another elite power-sharing deal,” said another Western official. “It’s still too early to tell whether the same leaders back in the same room together will do anything differently.”

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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