South Sudan: On the Brink of Renewed War

South Sudan: On the Brink of Renewed War

International Crisis Group


A major breach of the agreement signed in Addis Ababa and Juba in August to end South Sudan’s now two-year old civil war is increasingly likely. While low-level conflict is continuing in Unity state, conflict is now escalating in the Equatorias and Western Bahr el Ghazal. Many of the disparate members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) reject the agreement, while the government shies from implementing a deal it believes is to its detriment. The heads of state of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, the regional body that mediated the agreement), former Botswanan President Festus Moghae, head of the agreement’s Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), and key states that partnered with IGAD, including China, Norway, the U.S. and the UK, must take urgent, united action to put the peace process back on track or South Sudan will enter the new year at war again.

With an increasing number of the country’s more than 24-armed groups aligned with neither government nor SPLM/A-IO, the prospect of a multipolar war is becoming reality. Juba continues to fight on multiple fronts – most recently in the Equatorias and Western Bahr el Ghazal in addition to the long-running conflict in Greater Upper Nile. If the agreement collapses, the government will return to its longstanding policy of fighting and then integrating armed groups in parallel processes, but in the absence of political and security sector reforms outlined in the August agreement, this will not result in stability and will encourage a state of perpetual rebellion and conflict.

Delays in implementation of the August agreement gave Juba the space to announce the break-up of the country’s original ten states into 28. This move reinforced support to the government and demonstrated Juba’s authority in decision-making, but international actors condemned it as a violation of the agreement, and parts of the SPLM/A-IO are threatening renewed war over it. Its ethnic Shilluk “Aguelek” component (whose defection from the government in May 2015 gave the SPLM/A-IO some much needed military success) in Upper Nile has all but rejected the agreement and may make an independent bid (as one independent Shilluk group already has) to secure land rights around Malakal that Juba plans to give to a Dinka-dominated state. Several increasingly active rebellions in the Equatorias are encouraging SPLM/A-IO hawks to turn back to war and even consider attacking the capital. Meanwhile, the government is taking a hard line against rebellions among the Fertit ethnic groupings and others in Western Bahr el Ghazal.

Further complicating matters, the SPLM/A-IO leadership is debating whether the return to Juba as part of the transitional government agreed to in August should be as part of the SPLM or as their own political party.  Leadership appointments have been made in a new party structure – in the absence of a formal decision to create an independent party – generating controversy and confusion within the movement.

All this means that the SPLM/A-IO cannot move forward, unified, with peace implementation and indeed has deliberately stalled the process. At the same time, the government – never fully committed to the agreement – continues disproportionate responses to small rebellions that drive civilians to support multiple armed groups. Juba is also preparing for offensives during the upcoming dry season in anticipation that the agreement it never fully committed to could collapse. Juba continues to chafe at the treatment of SPLM/A-IO as equal to the government (the agreement is not based on parity) and will only accept the return of its leader, Riek Machar, with his power base significantly reduced. None of this is being adequately addressed by IGAD or through the JMEC. The only real progress to date has been the withdrawal of Ugandan troops who were supporting Juba.

The first necessary step is to rebuild consensus within IGAD-PLUS, the wider group of states and international organisations that helped produce the August agreement, so as to ensure that the regional allies of the government and SPLM/A-IO actively support the peace implementation strategy. This needs to start with a more coherent approach to the chaotic plans for SPLM/A-IO’s return to Juba that would bring thousands of rebel soldiers to the capital, risking armed confrontation if not well managed. It is also critical to prioritise key tasks, including convening the first meeting of the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission; and re-focusing efforts on ceasefire modalities, transitional security arrangements and the SPLM/A-IO’s return to Juba as part of the transitional government.

A renewed implementation push likewise requires a more assertive JMEC; led by President Moghae, it also includes representatives of various South Sudanese parties and civil society, all IGAD members, as well as China, Norway, U.S., UK, the African Union, European Union, and the UN. The gap left by the transition to it from IGAD has presented coordination challenges that should be urgently rectified in line with a more joined-up regional and wider international approach. To contribute to and represent the regional unity that was critical in reaching a deal in August, JMEC should seek to represent a regional balance and avoid being perceived as representing individual national interests.

The peace agreement was possible because IGAD, particularly mediators from Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, and the wider international community were united. But, as implementation faltered in the face of predictable foot-dragging from the parties, the IGAD heads of state did not meet in November as planned, and there is no coordinated strategy today. Implementation is the only way to prevent an intractable conflict on multiple fronts, a return to regional competition in South Sudan and an even worse humanitarian catastrophe. IGAD and JMEC should urgently convene to re-engage partners whose attention has been focused elsewhere, in order to bring greater unity and balance to implementation efforts. Only a united front will enable them to push the parties to implement the peace agreement before it is too late.

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Photo by AFP Samir Bol supplied in the original article by International Crisis Group.


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