South Sudan's rival parties have temporarily salvaged prospects for peace, agreeing a six-month deadline extension to allow for the formation of a unity government. But the country's external partners must sustain pressure on both sides to preserve a ceasefire and maintain consensus on a path forward.
On 3 May at a summit in Addis Ababa, South Sudan's rival parties agreed to a six-month extension of the deadline to form a unity government. A consensual delay had become the best available option to salvage South Sudan's peace deal, which has produced the first sustained ceasefire in the five-year conflict pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against an alliance led by former Vice President Riek Machar. But the next six months should not be wasted as the last eight were. The two sides need to make difficult decisions and South Sudan's foreign partners should both encourage and pressure them to do so in order to prevent a return to war.
For the first extended period since the civil war broke out in December 2013, the news out of South Sudan is not uniformly bleak: after the parties reached a peace deal in September 2018, a nationwide ceasefire between the signatories has been holding, even though fighting continues between the government and smaller groups clustered in South Sudan's Equatoria region who remain outside the peace deal.
This is a noteworthy achievement after years of empty commitments by the parties to silence their guns. Thousands of lives have been saved. But the gain is tenuous. The agreement, brokered by the regional body IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, long chaired by Ethiopia), gave the parties eight months to complete two main tasks: unifying a national army and resolving internal boundaries. Little, if any, progress has been made on either.
This lack of movement is hardly surprising, as the status quo is convenient for both sides. The government has little incentive to execute a power-sharing arrangement that, by definition, will dilute its authority. Benefitting from its military strength, it has invested few resources to help finance implementation of the accord; this extension, or even one after that, is no hardship. Riek Machar, who in theory would have every reason to return to Juba to take up the post of vice president as provided by the accord, has also been content to procrastinate; he was the one insisting on a six-month delay.
He appears to view the period prior to implementation - and notably the so-called cantonment process, under which both sides' armed groups are to be assembled as a prelude to forming a new, unified army - as an opportunity to regroup and bankroll his fighting force, which has largely demobilised after years of attrition and a lack of external support. He will also want to wait for developments in neighbouring Sudan to settle down, given the role Khartoum has played as his historic patron. Meanwhile, regional and international interest in South Sudan has drifted and waned. With neither internal momentum nor external pressure, paralysis was virtually preordained.
The peace deal's security provisions in particular have remained a dead letter. Kiir's army ignored provisions to demilitarise cities. There was no advance toward cantonment: Machar did not send his soldiers to camps, claiming a lack of funds, which only confirmed to wary donors that this exercise is about subsidising armed forces that someday could revert to war.
Under the circumstances, the 3 May agreement is welcome news. By extending the deadline it avoided a riskier alternative: unilateral formation of a new government by Kiir without the main opposition party's participation. When the government opted for that approach in 2016 and replaced Machar with a senior defector from his own party, two years of widening conflict ensued. There was another positive outcome: government representatives pledged $100 million to the implementation process, which - should Kiir carry out this commitment - will help assuage external donors increasingly impatient with Juba's unwillingness to spend any of its own money.
But for the next six months not to mimic the inaction of the past eight, several steps will be crucial:
Breaking the impasse over implementation, especially regarding security provisions. As Crisis Group has previously underscored, the priority is to ensure the peace process does not stall and preserve its principal achievement, the ceasefire. So far, Machar has insisted that his return, and thus the formation of a unity government, can only happen after completion of the cantonment process.
But this fraught, complicated endeavour will be time-consuming; South Sudan is entering its annual rainy season, which will last for most of the next six months, making the task even more challenging. In short, a unity government preconditioned on a broader reform of the army and the integration of Machar's disparate armed groups - many of which are likely to resist such a move - might never be formed. Likewise, Machar's public insistence that he can only return if accompanied by a large force that includes thousands of his own fighters is a recipe for conflict: both of South Sudan's two major eruptions of violence, in 2013 and 2016, were sparked by fighting between Kiir's and Machar's bodyguards.
One possible solution, previously mooted by Crisis Group, would be for a third-party force to provide protection for Machar to enable his safe and dignified return. Machar would need to request it - which could help convince outsiders that he is serious about returning - and implementation would be a heavy lift for exhausted donors and a distracted region. But it could be the most practical way of getting the deal moving and affording time and space for the peace deal to progress without holding it hostage to wider security reform process.
Improving relations between the two sides. Suspicion between the two sides runs deep, and each one doubts the other's commitment to the deal. That is unlikely to change, but some steps could be taken to mitigate the damage. To begin with, irrespective of how unpleasant for them, Kiir and Machar should agree to regular face-to-face meetings. Kiir also should quickly outlay the financial commitments he has pledged as a sign of good faith.
Ensure better coordination among outside actors. Several factors have combined to weaken the role of external mediators. Most significantly, the long overdue ouster from power of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has brought a diplomatic vacuum of sorts; along with Bashir went the other main broker of the peace deal, his security strongman Salah Gosh. This has both visibly rattled Machar and left the process leaderless; for as long as uncertainty reigns in Khartoum, Sudan will not be in a position to mediate between Kiir and Machar.
There are no other obvious candidates to help guide the process. The likeliest alternative, Ethiopia, stepped up last week in Addis Ababa. But Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed's willingness to devote the necessary energy to the task is questionable: he promptly handed the file to Sudan after he took office, preferring to focus on other critical priorities, including his own domestic transition and the peace deal with Eritrea. Ugandan President Museveni helped Bashir broker the accord, but he is closer to Kiir and enjoys little influence over Machar.
For lack of a better alternative, the burden likely will fall on the collection of regional countries represented in IGAD as well as Western donors, led by the Troika (the U.S., UK, and Norway) and the EU. Although these countries did not engage at a senior level, they performed relatively well in the run-up to Addis Ababa, articulating the clear message to the parties that the most important goal was for them to maintain consensus on a path forward.
Their message now should be equally straightforward: the priority is protecting the ceasefire, which will require the parties to seek consensus and strike common ground. There is a lesson to be learned from past attempts to force through contentious solutions: in 2016, heavy outside pressure led to Machar's return to Juba, with over a thousand well-armed fighters. The government immediately deadlocked over key decisions on how to implement the remainder of the accord, clashes between the two sides' respective bodyguards led to days of bloody fighting in the capital, and Machar was forced to flee hundreds of miles on foot.
The Horn of Africa is undergoing seismic shifts, with a historic albeit risky transition in Ethiopia, a long-sought agreement between Addis Ababa and Asmara, the fall of Bashir, and South Sudan's peace deal. Instability in any of these areas affects them all.
The decision to extend the deadline for government formation in Juba is hardly a breakthrough. It represents a palliative at best, and a temporary one at that. It addresses neither the problem of the many localised rebel groups that Machar will struggle to accommodate, nor the ongoing power struggle between him and Kiir. But it is an achievement nonetheless. For now, the focus should be on using this reprieve wisely in order to preserve the ceasefire and, step by step, help South Sudan move toward a more comprehensive and longer-lasting peace.