Africa: South Sudan's 'New' Peace Deal Is Missing Something - Details

Fighting between government and opposition forces has intensified in Unity region in South Sudan
29 June 2018

The Khartoum agreement makes several promises, but is short on specifics and leaves the issues that have scuppered previous deals unresolved.

South Sudan's main belligerents have come to a peace agreement just days before the 30 June deadline set by the UN Security Council. Under pressure from the Sudanese and Ugandan presidents in Khartoum, President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar signed a deal on 27 June.

The news initially came as a surprise. Only the week before, the warring parties had rejected a peace agreement that was meant to revitalise a pact originally signed in 2015. Just days ago, Kiir and Machar left a meeting in Addis Ababa rejecting the idea of even working together.

So what led them to shake hands now? The answer lies not so much in what's in the deal but what isn't: namely, any details.

Discussions of power-sharing, which have stymied previous rounds of talks, were avoided. Meanwhile, the ceasefire is a reiteration of the existing Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoH), which collapsed shortly after it was first signed in December 2017.

So why did the leaders agree to this deal? To begin with, coming to this resolution will likely mean that UN sanctions are avoided. Additionally, it is notable that the deal contains a new provision that states: "the parties shall agree on self-monitoring mechanisms". This is a departure from external monitoring that is meant to compel parties to abide by the peace terms and hold violators accountable.

Independent mechanisms are widely accepted to be necessary to maintain a meaningful peace, especially in an environment of such little trust and a consistently poor track record of compliance. Exhausted and yearning for something to show for their efforts, however, the UN and other concerned states are likely to accept anything resembling progress.

Beyond this, the terms agreed were similarly vague. The deal promises the creation of a "national army", but this has long been agreed on in principle and adds nothing about what it means in practice. Building a national army means something different to Kiir, Machar, and the other political leaders. Former army Chief of Staff Paul Malong, for instance, has proposed completely disbanding of the existing army and reforming it based on ethnic and community representation.

The awkwardly worded clause on "all-inclusive security organs" (reminiscent of a Club Med package deal) is similarly short on actual details. Does this mean every community and/or ethnic group will be represented in the security organs? Or does it only include those who are party to the agreement or one of the main belligerent groups? Disagreements over these kinds of key details have scuttled deals in the past and sowed the seeds of further tensions.

One area where there is a little more detail is Section 5, the largest part of the deal, which agrees to "immediately rehabilitate the oilfields". This section covers security over the oilfields and includes a role for the Sudanese government. This may open the door for the direct involvement of Sudanese security forces or their proxies, a worrying first since South Sudan's independence. For Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, it is this aspect that seems to have been the primary motivation for these talks.

Another clause of concern is "the disarmament of civilians all over the country". There is no doubt that the level of small arms proliferation in South Sudan is a major security problem. But for many individuals, families and communities, these weapons are their only insurance and means for security. Attempts to remove them in blanket campaigns have typically inspired resistance, rebellion and more conflict. Moreover, similarly-worded campaigns have at times been used as a pretext for the violent targeting of certain groups.

Finally, the deal signed in Khartoum mandates for national elections to take place after a three-year transitional period. These will eventually be needed to consolidate peace, but elections have the potential to exacerbate conflict as much as reconcile inclusive and legitimate government. Without more details, it is hard to assess if this latest plan has potential to succeed where previous similar efforts have failed.

It is difficult not to be cynical and see the Khartoum talks as a pretext to make progress on oil sector re-development more so than sustainable peace to alleviate suffering. But after continued failures, perhaps any kind of agreement between the main belligerents in South Sudan is positive. Its real potential will only come out, however, when the parties sit down to hammer out the specifics. The same crucial details that have repeatedly confounded the talks led by the regional mediators IGAD remain outstanding.

The devil is in the detail, and that is what the agreement is missing. As a close confidant from South Sudan noted after reading the deal, this is like dressing a rotten wound without cleaning it.

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