South Sudan is the world’s newest recognize country and has faced many issues since its independence from Sudan. South Sudan recently celebrated 10 years of independence and on Independence Day leaders spoke of peace. The South Sudan President Kiir has recently stated that, “I assure you that I will not return you back to war again.” Similarly, the previous vice president, Riek Machar, said that “For us to continue celebrations every time, we need to keep the peace alive.” These statements bring hope for a renewed focus on the peace process in South Sudan that has been slow.
The current conflict started in 2013, only two years after South Sudan gained independence, when President Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup. The politicians belong to different ethnic groups (Dinka/Nuer) and during the disagreement, they both appealed to their respective groups. Machar started the armed opposition group. Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO). Rebels took control of several towns, the violent conflict that followed affected most of the country. The U.N. states that, “Both parties to the conflict were responsible for ethnically targeted attacks on civilians and failed to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.” Carlo Koos and Thea Gutschke, associates at German Institute for Global and Area Studies, have argued that the politicians instrumentalized their ethnic identities and pulled “their communities into their personal feud.” They point out that there has historically been distrust between the two groups, and this was utilized by the two men. While the conflict initially seemed two have largely two parties, today it is different. The two groups have broken into fractions and other groups have joined the conflict. Approximately 400,000 are dead because of the war, and there have been accusations of rape and ethnic cleansing. The situation in South Sudan is largely considered a humanitarian conflict. The UNHCR estimates that around four million people have been driven from their homes and are either internally displaced, refugees, or asylum seekers. In 2017, a famine took place in the country as a direct result of the ongoing conflict. This is increasingly becoming a facet of civil conflict on the African continent and is deeply troubling.
According to BBC, since the start of the conflict in 2013 more than 10 agreements and ceasefires have been signed. Relatively early, there were international attempts to facilitate a peace process. In 2014 peace talks were established and facilitated by Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD had previously helped negotiate the Machakos Protocol in 2002 and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Northern Sudan and South Sudan. In 2015 a peace agreement was signed by the parties, the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCRSS), often referred to as the “Compromise Peace Agreement” and a cease-fire was established. The agreement stipulated that Machar should be reinstated as vice president. The agreement established a Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) responsible for monitoring and overseeing the implementation of the agreement. It also called for the Ugandan troops to withdraw from South Sudan. The ceasefire largely held until 2016 when the fighting started up again.
In 2016 President Kiir initiated the South Sudan National Dialogue with the aim to collect and compile the people’s perspective on how to move forward in the peace process. The 2005 peace agreement and the 2011 Transitional Constitution of South Sudan have both been criticized for not including perspective civil society. The Dialogue held more than 200 grassroots meetings and approximately 20,000 people participated. The process was slow and was staled due to Covid-19. When it was concluded at the end of 2020, the report showed that large parts of the people wanted both Kiir and Machar to leave politics. Ola Mohajer and David Deng at The United States Institute for Peace notes that the report addresses proposals for among other things “politics, the military, state formation, resource sharing, violence, elections, and reconciliation.” Despite the fact that some actors boycotted the dialogue or had trouble participating, it is a bottom-up perspective and could potentially complement the top-down ones found in the peace agreements.
In 2018, a renewed peace agreement was signed by the parties called Revitalized Agreement On The Resolution Of The Conflict In South Sudan. The peace agreement focuses on peace through state building. According to Gene Carolan, the agreement “touches upon almost every aspect of social and political life in South Sudan.” The agreement seeks to decentralize parts of the government, reform the judicial, economic, and security sector as well as enact constitution reform. In addition, chapter five of the agreement focuses on transitional justice. Ibrahim Sakawa Magara argues that the timing of transitional justice is important to consider. Lately, there has been a push for implementing the mechanism of transitional justice. The peace agreement list three different forms: The Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS), Compensation and Reparation Authority. The hybrid court has been approved, but has not been established yet. A hybrid court means that the court utilizes both national and international law. In his research, Magara found that several of his interviews expressed that South Sudan was not ready for a transitional justice process and that it could jeopardize the advances for peace that have been made. One of the interviews also thought that it is international pressure was advancing the question of justice. The debate between justice and peace is not new, peace often necessitated the involvement of those who committed violence while justice seeks to hold them accountable. The current peace process in South Sudan necessitated the involvement of warring parties, some that would probably end up in the court if the processes were initiated. Many are reluctant to even participate in a truth and reconciliation process. Magara argues that we cannot try to attempt to put a timeline on transitional justice, and that the condition for a successful process is not present yet in South Sudan.
Despite the 2018 peace agreement’s focus on power-sharing, Carolan argues that it fails in some crucial areas, namely, it limits the executive influence of actors not belong to the armed elite, the South Sudan Opposition Alliance, and the SPLM. In other words, the peace agreement has largely divided the power of the state between the two main warring parties. So while people might want Kiir and Machar to leave politics this seems highly unlikely. Carolan suggests that the opposite will happen that they will “entrench themselves in the state apparatus,” making it hard for others to challenge them. He points out that this problem was has existed in previous peace agreements in the area, including the influential 2005 peace agreement, and that we need to learn from these mistakes in order to stop the cycle of violence.
There is no denying that peace generally requires the involvement of warring parties that have committed atrocities, yet when we draft peace agreements that make it difficult for people to peacefully challenge these groups, we are in trouble. However, writing a peace agreement that is ‘good’ yet ‘works’ and the parties agree to is extremely difficult. The 2018 peace is both imperfect and lacks implementation, most likely the peace process will need additional agreements in the future. Especially constitutional changes that regulate executive power. The people that participated in the national dialogue were however clear, they are ready for peace and they have ideas on how to build it. The latest talks by the elite about peace are encouraging, but South Sudan still has a long way to go. The country is not ready for transitional justice and international pressure should focus on stopping the violence that still takes place and holding the leaders to their words. Moreover, we should listen to the people of South Sudan’s ideas for the peace process given in the national dialogue. If the chance arises, the international community should attempt to create an opportunity for the opposition to be able to peacefully and democratically challenge the government, so that taking up arms is not seen as the only way to be heard.