South Sudan is arguably the most fragile state in the world. Lacking an institutional legacy at its creation in 2011, political, security, economic, and social indicators have all deteriorated amid civil conflict. As state legitimacy has eroded, the number of armed factions and tribal militias has increased rapidly, now exceeding 40 such groups.
One consequence of the prolonged conflict is that South Sudan - a nation of over 13 million people - is now one of the main sources of refugees in the world.
There are nearly 2.5 million people seeking shelter in neighbouring countries and another 1.85 million internally displaced. Nearly 7 million people (60% of the pre-crisis population) face famine and severe food insecurity.
The economy has almost collapsed with annual inflation fluctuating between 100% to 150%. Conflicts within and between communities have led to social fracturing and the erosion of social cohesion. The retreat into ethnic cocoons, which threatens national unity, is fuelled by conflict. But it's also reinforced by the ruling elites failure to embrace diversity and to disperse power and resources from the centre.
To reorient the country toward peace and unity, new life must be injected into the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan signed in 2015. The signing of the revitalised peace agreement in September 2018 provides renewed hope for putting South Sudan on a trajectory of peace although serious concerns remain about its sustainability. This should be coupled with the completion of the deployment of the regional protection force.
South Sudan faces numerous and serious challenges contributing to instability. The most serious is the continuing insurgency in which no single party to the conflict can impose its will militarily.
In the middle of this is a man made famine caused by the conflict and the collapse of food and economic production. The result is mass displacement within and outside South Sudan's borders. Another consequence of conflict is human rights violations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The disintegration of security institutions has rendered the state unable to protect lives and property. What's worse is that it has itself become a key source of violence and instability. The erosion of the government's presence in rural areas and its retreat to Juba, the capital city, has prompted some to argue that South Sudan has been reduced to a city-state.
This retreat has created large ungoverned spaces in which insurgents, militia, and what remains of the military clash repeatedly. In the process, civilians have been preyed on and victimised at will primarily on an ethnic basis.
Yet, this "national conflict" overlays a cornucopia of preexisting conflicts. These include conflicts over resources, including land, pasture, water, and cattle. Moreover, the culture of violent revenge has replaced the traditional compensation system and often results in children becoming legitimate targets of revenge.
This devastating account of the challenges that confront stabilisation and peace efforts paint an undoubtedly bleak and dreary picture of what the future holds for the people of South Sudan. The bad news is that it could get worse if the recently signed peace agreement suffers the same fate of the 2015 peace agreement.
What getting worse looks like
There's a real danger that South Sudan could revert to a stateless entity if the current peace agreement fails again. There would follow a period of massive death from famine and conflict. The vast ungoverned space would also pose a regional security vacuum.
The country could disintegrate into permanent anarchy characterised by:
Degeneration of the status quo into chaos, anarchy, lawlessness, or ochlocracy or mob rule. This would be accompanied by the continued fragmentation of political and ethnic groups. Survival would be entirely dependent on strength of arms. Weaker communities would be forced to flee or be eliminated.
Inability to pay the salaries of state functionaries, judges, and other bodies of arbitration resulting in a total shutdown of government.
Prospect of regional powers intervening militarily in favour of one or several factions increasing the intensity, scope, and longevity of violence. This would render war intractable.
Disintegration of economic conditions making trade, capital transfers, and infrastructural maintenance unviable. As a result, militia and other security personnel would increase their extortionist activities.
There are potential solutions. South Sudanese society could be stabilised. But this would require great effort on the part of numerous players.
First, the guns need to be silenced. The 2018 revitalised peace agreement provides a framework and minimum conditions for this to happen. This agreement is a win for the government with opposition weakened, fractured and with strong sense of insecurity. But success rests on the emergence of a new breed of leaders to transform this agreement into an opportunity for creating space for civicness in place of violence.
The deployment of the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force would be an integral part of this effort. The size of this force may need to be enlarged. This temporary outsourcing of security services can create an environment enabling other aspects of the stabilisation to proceed.
Stabilisation efforts will also require strategic direction from the top. If the new power-sharing agreement under the joint leadership of Salva Kiir and Riek Machar fails again to facilitate transition to democracy, then the government would lose its legitimacy. Therefore, the installation of a broad-based, public-spirited political authority would be critical to foster stability and lay the groundwork for a democratic transition.
Various options can be considered. These include:
a caretaker transitional administration led by South Sudanese technocrats.
These arrangements should be accompanied by a negotiated exit strategy for the current political leaders.
In view of capacity gaps and lack of trust in sections of the South Sudanese political class, a hybrid arrangement may be the preferred route. It would be composed of untainted South Sudanese technocrats and African Union-United Nations managing South Sudan through to a viable democratic transition.
South Sudan could draw on the experiences of Liberia and Burundi in efforts to redesign and transform security sector institutions. In Liberia, foreign security forces were invited to manage the security sector while local institutions were built up. In Burundi, ethnic-based quotas were enforced in the security forces.
With the prevalence of a strong sense of insecurity in South Sudan, the transition to democracy is more likely to be achieved through building institutional checks and balances. Strengthening professionalism, particularly in security sector, is also vital. Taking these steps could create a more conducive security environment for nurturing civicness in governance and stabilising South Sudan through rule of law. It would also require parallel efforts focusing on saving lives and restoring livelihoods.
Hand in hand with prioritising professionalism in security sector there should be efforts aimed at forging new social contract to restore confidence in public institutions and nurture social cohesion.
Luka Kuol, Africa Center for Strategic Studies