In September 2018 South Sudanese actors signed a new peace agreement to 'revitalise' the 2015 deal, which had collapsed. The new agreement, the result of months of negotiations led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), secured the buy-in of most of the parties to the conflict.
Despite a challenging context and scepticism about the viability of the agreement, the country has since seen noticeable progress in a number of key areas.
First, the majority of exiled opposition leaders have returned to Juba within the framework of the agreement. According to those facilitating the process, having many of the political leaders in the same space has made it easier for important consultations to take place. As of early March and since the return of most of the opposition to Juba, the United Nations (UN) mission in the country has facilitated about 70 such meetings.
The return of the opposition leaders was made possible by a noticeable reduction in fighting across the country. This was partly in response to the provisions of the permanent ceasefire.
The improving security situation has also permitted the return of some internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homes. According to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for South Sudan, David Shearer, about 135 000 people have made such a move. In the first quarter of 2019, about 12 000 people left IDP camps for their various homes.
Finally, as a result of these changes, there has been renewed optimism among citizens about the prospect of peace in the country. This is crucial in securing the buy-in of citizens on which to anchor sustainable peace in the country.
Critical issues remain unresolved
The above developments are significant in the context of the dire humanitarian situation that has characterised the conflict since 2013.
However, the current progress cannot be attributed to the successful resolution of the critical issues at the heart of the current crisis.
It is, instead, the result of a general atmosphere of war-weariness across the country, a weakened opposition, regional pressure and the self-seeking choices of certain politicians working to appropriate emerging positions for financial gain. The real issues at the heart of the current crisis remain unresolved.
In the run-up to the collapse of the 2015 agreement, there was tense political contestation between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, and strong disagreement over the interpretation of some of the provisions of that agreement. This took place in an atmosphere of deep mistrust between the two leaders.
There were also serious delays in integrating the armies that the two leaders controlled and an inability of the leaders to transition from the battlefield to the boardroom. Added to that was a lack of political will on the part of Kiir to implement the agreement. A perfect cocktail of issues thus existed for a return to war.
The peace process at the time did not manage to alter these underlying variables, hence the collapse of the peace agreement in 2016.
Currently, despite the macro signs of progress noted above, there all still undercurrents of deep suspicion, a lack of political will to fully implement the peace agreement and delays in unifying the army. Progress in South Sudan should thus be measured by the extent to which existing responses are able to address these issues.
According to IGAD's regional monitoring mechanism, the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC), only 44% of the overall milestones to be achieved in the pre-transition period have been completed since the signing of the peace agreement. The majority of these relate to the establishment of institutions and mechanisms rather than core controversial issues. Thus, about 56% of the required crucial milestones have not been met. These include the most contentious and crucial issues, particularly the unification of the army, determination of state boundaries and constitutional amendments.
These unaddressed issues are the most difficult to deal with and can also create new tensions. Some opposition members argue that the failure to tackle core issues is indicative of the government's cherry picking of what to implement. The actual work needed to sustain progress remains to be done.
Lack of funding
Because of scepticism, donor fatigue and eroded goodwill, the implementation of the peace agreement has also not been able to attract enough funding from the international community.
Questions are therefore being raised as to why the increases in oil revenue are not being committed to the implementation of the peace agreement. As of February 2019, for instance, the $285 million budget of the National Pre-Transitional Committee (NPTC) had not been fully funded and had received a pledge of only $10 million from the government.
With only one month to the deadline, in May, it is unlikely that the agreement's pre-transitional milestones will be achieved. This is owing, in part, to the lack of proper funding and the inability of the South Sudanese government to commit additional funds to the implementation of the agreement, as well as accusations of mismanagement of the available meagre resources by members of the NPTC, which also raises questions about local ownership.
Possibly the biggest obstacle is the fate of Machar. Despite regional pronouncements to the contrary, Machar has not been able to travel in the region since his arrival in Khartoum in June 2018. A senior member of the SPLA-IO once asked, 'If all is well, why is our chairman still unable to travel in the region?'
IGAD member states' refusal to allow Machar to travel freely shows the continued lack of neutrality among neighbours when it comes to opposition groups.
The need for pressure
The seriousness of those issues that have yet to be addressed points to the need for cautious optimism. As the pre-transition period defined by the revitalised agreement ends in May 2019, chances of resolving all the critical issues are slim.
A request for an extension of the pre-transition is highly likely, but might work in favour of the incumbent rather than the opposition, as the government has the upper hand in many aspects of the ongoing implementation.
A second scenario of moving into a transition phase without addressing all the crucial issues will only amount to repeating the mistakes of the past by creating conditions that can cause a quick relapse into conflict, as in 2016.
Overall, therefore, the IGAD implementation structures and the continental response frameworks need to apply pressure on the parties to resolve all the crucial issues before the end of the pre-transition period. That is the only way to sustain the progress made and to make the required strides towards peace in South Sudan.