Without setting clear expectations for the upcoming peace forum, the international community risks allowing the regional mediation to fail, exacerbating the conflict in South Sudan.
South Sudan faces an existential crisis. More than four million people - between a third and half of the population - are displaced from their homes. Nearly eight million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The economy is in tatters. After almost four years of civil war, conflict has devolved into fighting across multiple fronts.
A new regional peace effort
In an attempt to address the ongoing crisis, the Horn of Africa's regional organization, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), initiated the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) in June. The forum is intended to revive an effectively defunct 2015 peace accord, the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), which collapsed following fighting in Juba in July 2016 between government forces and the armed opposition loyal to former First Vice President Riek Machar.
IGAD has tried to rhetorically accommodate the demand from South Sudan's government that the HLRF not renegotiate the agreement, while acknowledging that some of the grievances of the numerous armed and civilian opposition groups (including those excluded from the ARCSS) need to be considered if the conflict is to be meaningfully addressed. Festus Mogae, chairman of the commission overseeing ARCSS implementation, called for the 'revitalization process [to] address the current political realities in South Sudan...and seek ways in which key actors can be identified and engaged or re-engaged'. IGAD eventually embarked on a series of consultations to include a wider range of participants in the HLRF, although it is unclear whether the process will ultimately be sufficiently inclusive of both armed and civilian stakeholders.
There were wider problems with design of the HLRF from the outset. Questions about objectives, timetables, and whether and how obsolete provisions of the ARCSS would be addressed, are unresolved. To date, nearly every HLRF schedule has overrun. It remains unclear whether the Forum will purposefully convene in December, or whether the process will slip into 2018.
The Troika of the US, the UK and Norway, joined by the EU - has recognized the need for urgent action to avert further crisis. In July, they emphasized that inclusive participation, a defined, limited agenda, and adherence to the stated timetable were important indicators for the credibility of the HLRF process.
High stakes, weak prospects
The biggest factor in the success or failure of the process is the degree to which South Sudan's elites are ready to compromise and meaningfully participate. The signs are not positive. The government has continued to strengthen its hand militarily before the HLRF convenes - with conflict dynamics on the ground in its favour. Forum shopping remains prevalent.
In addition, insufficient preparation by IGAD as well as a flawed process, design and execution makes a positive outcome less likely. This is matched by a lack of leadership from the wider international community - nearly five months after the HLRF was endorsed, neither the Troika, nor the wider IGAD Plus membership (Algeria, Chad, China, Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa, the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations) have clearly and collectively outlined minimum expectations for the process.
The stakes are high. The failure of this forum could exacerbate the conflict in multiple ways, and undermine any remaining confidence in South Sudan's ability to peacefully resolve the political differences that drive grievances, displacement, and economic decline. Opposition movements without opportunities for their objections to be peacefully addressed may be further alienated. Consequently, it would be more difficult for any future peace process to pick up where previous efforts leave off.
IGAD may feel the need to protect its reputation and assert its continued relevance by pushing for an agreement at the forum. The government of South Sudan is also keen to portray itself as a constructive actor, and has claimed to be implementing the ARCSS, despite the oversight commission's clear findings that it is not. Consequently, albeit for different reasons, any HLRF outcome may be claimed as a success by either IGAD or the South Sudanese government, no matter its sustainability or effectiveness in ending conflict. An agreement to cease hostilities that lacks the confidence of those fighting on the ground would be counterproductive and potentially worse than no ceasefire at all. South Sudan has been here before: earlier this year, the UN Security Council tried a similar approach without success.
The importance of framing expectations
IGAD Plus countries cannot and should not dictate the outcomes of the forum. But IGAD cannot know it has failed if success has not been defined; therefore, it is vital the process is framed through a clear articulation of its expectations for minimum outcomes. The HLRF process does not begin with a blank slate. It remains necessary to take a view on which elements of the ARCSS are desirable to maintain, and which can be discarded, modified or rethought. Rigidly holding onto outdated or ill-conceived propositions for governance and security arrangements, and entrenching premature elections or other divisive activities, would likely fuel tensions.
Discrete issues - power-sharing or security arrangements in the capital, for example - cannot be considered in isolation of broader contributing causes of conflict. Most issues are interlinked. The HLRF will discuss the timing of elections - but such a discussion is pointless if it does not consider what political, humanitarian and reform activities are needed to ensure elections contribute to peace, rather than drive further conflict.
Expectations of IGAD Plus for the forum should be sufficiently broad as to allow the South Sudanese to determine and own the specifics of any arrangements reached, but help frame the process. They should not be so numerous as to be unrealistic. At a minimum, the outcomes of the HLRF should include:
Reforming security arrangements to address conflict in most theatres of South Sudan while being durable enough to last the remainder of the transition period.
Calibrating any extension to the transitional period with a firm commitment to key governance, economic and humanitarian reforms.
Making the path to elections conditional on there being a conducive environment, including improvements in security and humanitarian conditions, with guarantees for the respect of fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly.
Fully empowering the peace agreement's oversight mechanism to follow up on implementation and take swift and robust action in the event that there is further failure to comply with obligations.
Maintaining the essential set of reform and transitional justice commitments specified in the ARCSS.
Crucially, both South Sudanese political elites and IGAD should understand that after nearly four years of war and human suffering, more than inadequate incremental progress is needed. A fundamental tension exists between the need for IGAD to allow any agreement to be owned by South Sudanese leaders - including those with little desire to achieve peace - and the need to ensure the outcome reached is viable. Overcoming this tension will not be easy, but clear expectations shouldhelp South Sudanese leaders unequivocally understand that their future national, regional and international credibility depends on their ability to deliver peace and reform.
Ahmed Soliman Research Associate, Horn of Africa, Africa Programme
Ahmed SolimanAly VerjeeVisiting Research Scholar, USIP; Acting Chief of Staff, Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission on South Sudan (2015-16)