Three months into South Sudan’s extended peace deal and little progress has been made towards brokering a power-sharing agreement. The deal was struck in order to reinstate Riek Machar as Vice President, whose position was stripped in 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused him of planning a mutiny. For five years, a gruesome civil war raged on these terms, a conflict based upon unsubstantiated suspicions and racial prejudice. This latest peace deal has provided some respite for the people of South Sudan, but beneath this superficial calm remains an array of fundamental issues that continues to plague the politics of South Sudan.
Despite achieving independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been unable to quell unrest surrounding race, territory, and resources. Rather than providing a solution, statehood merely relocated conflict in the region, shifting power into equally greedy and unchecked hands. This continued state of disarray has many observers skeptical of the prospects of peace, with no fundamental change to governmental structure and personnel proposed in the current peace deal. “Even if you give Kiir and Machar 1,000 years they will never implement any peace deal together,” said Jacob Chol, a senior political analyst at the University of Juba.
The basis of good governance was never properly established as South Sudan achieved independence. This environment, which is a commonality in unstable governments across Africa, allowed the strongman Salva Kiir to inhabit and substantiate his position of power. The ongoing peace deal is a further example of this — it makes no proposal to alter fundamental institutions or improve the democratic process, it’s primary purpose is to appease the demands of Machar and Kiir. The deal includes a plan to form a coalition of armed forces between these factions, as well as to reimagine South Sudan as made up of many ethnic tribes, with local power placed in the hands of any given region’s majority. Rather than unite the south as 98% of eligible citizens voted toward in 2011, the new policy will look to further demarcate society on an ethnic basis.
Ethnic violence has plagued Sudan for generations. During the periods of British and Egyptian occupation, existent tribal differences were wedged further apart via national policy that prioritized treatment and education of northern tribes over the south. When the British left in 1956 this toxic culture remained, and immediately the nation was thrown into a vicious civil war. From 1955 to 2005, across two major civil wars, Sudan was formally at war with itself for 39 years.
For too long the Sudanese struggle has been viewed through an ethnic lens. The formation of South Sudan came about as a potential solution to this strife, but again that was an attempt to diffuse ethnic tension with new borders and power-sharing. Institutions such as the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) demonstrate the value that a regional approach can have to tackle domestic concerns. Originally devised to assist drought-stricken nations in the Horn of Africa, IGAD has developed into a full-fledged organization working to promote peace and prosperity in the region. This vision of a cooperative region would benefit each state, and allow one another to work collaboratively to combat many shared issues, such as migration, environmental concern, and sustainable development. With increased backing from international donors and greater trust from local actors, organizations such as IGAD could be vital to facilitating tangible progress in the uphill battle that is peace in Sudan.
If the world’s newest state has taught us anything, it’s that sovereignty alone is not enough in the quest for peace, especially in an environment as institutionally weak and corruptible as Juba. The ongoing disagreements between Machar’s Nuer tribe and Kiir’s Dinkas are simply the newest machination of this cycle on display. South Sudan’s tribal politics continues to influence the nation, creating an environment that is characterized by conflict, desperation, and mismanagement. But with a change of focus and some external assistance, the world’s youngest state can start to redefine itself, and with it, the future.
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