With little more than a month left before a new transitional government is set to assume power in South Sudan, efforts to keep the latest peace agreement on track are becoming more urgent, even as most key pre-transition deadlines have been missed and the political will of the belligerents remains in doubt. Given these circumstances, efforts to support the current process remain vitally necessary and thorough planning for the worst-case scenarios is also desperately needed in case South Sudan’s fragile peace collapses.

Salva Kiir (center right), president of the Republic of South Sudan, shakes hands with Riek Machar, opposition leader, at the Presidential Palace in Juba, Sept. 11, 2019 (UN Photo/Isaac Billy)
Salva Kiir (center right), president of the Republic of South Sudan, shakes hands with Riek Machar, opposition leader, at the Presidential Palace in Juba, Sept. 11, 2019. (UN Photo/Isaac Billy)

In September 2018, the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) was signed in Addis Ababa, rebooting the initial institutions and commitments to peace first established by an earlier peace agreement signed in 2015. Now, after 14 months, a new transitional government is due to be formed on November 12. Both the incumbent government of President Salva Kiir and a key opposition figure, Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), are due to once again assume top positions in this government, alongside a variety of other armed and civilian opposition factions.

The best-case scenario is that Kiir and Machar will overcome the numerous delays and obstructions to date, find a way to work together for the entirety of the transitional period, deliver on the numerous reform commitments specified in the R-ARCSS, and participate in a fair electoral process in 2022. This is the logic of the 2018 agreement and is the scenario for which millions of conflict-fatigued South Sudanese, the regional powers that mediated the agreement, as well as long-term friends of South Sudan such as the United States and China, desperately hope.

We do not predict that failure is inevitable nor necessarily imminent. However, there are plenty of signs that the hopeful outcome we describe may not come to pass. Here are two other highly possible scenarios that should be anticipated for and mitigated against.

The Dragging Their Feet Scenario

This scenario continues from where the South Sudanese parties are at present. In a continuation of the last 14 months, the R-ARCSS signatories continue to drag their feet and either delay, once again, formation of the new transitional government, or only form it partially, perhaps without Riek Machar or some other key opposition figures. Or, even if the transitional government is formed on paper, a parallel cabinet effectively runs the government, undercutting the power-sharing requirements of the agreement and impeding most genuine reforms. In terms of security, periodic outbursts of conflict with armed opposition groups occur, but war fatigue prevents the violence from escalating dramatically. 

The Short-term Collapse Scenario

In this scenario, the parties to the agreement fail to resolve their differences—whether over security arrangements in the capital, Juba, and elsewhere in the country, and/or the long-running dispute over the number and boundaries of sub-national states—and the agreement collapses. The pressure on the leadership in Juba leads to an internal standoff among senior political and military figures, as occurred in July 2016. The armed opposition—some of which have refused to sign on to the 2018 agreement—seize an opportunity and step up attacks on government positions throughout the country. Major violence erupts again in Juba and elsewhere, people once again flee settled areas, whether to the bush, U.N.-administered protection of civilian sites, or to neighboring countries, only adding to the population of nearly four million displaced persons in South Sudan.

Either of these scenarios may well be more likely than “Plan A,” the peaceable, timely and effective implementation of the R-ARCSS as written.

What can be done?

Although the R-ARCSS already establishes numerous benchmarks and commitments for the parties to meet, there is a lack of prioritization among these multiple issues. Implementation is made even more difficult to manage and address by the compressed timetable for action and the all-too-reactive behavior of regional and international actors.

A more concise set of benchmarks are needed to measure genuine progress (or the lack thereof) and to avoid the political spin that the parties have tended to employ in judging their own compliance with commitments. These benchmarks should be consistent with the black-letter text of the agreement—such as on security and government reforms—but they need not be limited by the R-ARCSS framework. For example, a key milestone to lay down for the transitional government could include tangible action to promote economic recovery and set clear targets for public revenue to go toward services for citizens (starting with at least 30 percent of the budget to health and education). These are the kinds of things that civil society and international actors should push the parties to achieve. 

Not all political responses need be reactive to crisis; there is still time for prevention to work. Beyond the milestones in the agreement and the supplementary benchmarks we suggest, response options need to be developed in addition to those called for in the 2018 accord, especially as the built-in safeguards and institutions established by the accord have so far been shown wanting. In the short-term, these should include: 

  • Greater efforts at mitigating risks built into the security arrangements intended—notably by establishing mechanisms to deescalate tensions among factions of the anticipated VIP force charged with protecting key political figures—including a potential inter-positional role for the robust regional protection force of the U.N. mission in country; 
  • Greater regional and international political engagement to prevent the possible escalation of violence; 
  • Efforts to discourage parties from legitimizing or encouraging splinter groups or interference in the affairs of other parties; and
  • Sustaining and improving the space for civic and social actors to operate, by lifting the restrictions on national media, establishing means for civil society activists to regroup in the event of a security collapse, and making available flexible funding that can be tapped immediately to allow civil society to respond to emergency situations.

Counting on “Plan A” is not enough, even as efforts to hold the R-ARCSS signatories to their commitments remain vital. After nearly six years of brutal conflict, two security collapses in Juba, and innumerable atrocities committed by all sides, South Sudan can barely afford a scenario of merely hope for the best. If “Plan A” does not work, it is time for a fundamentally different strategy: one that builds a public case for and puts in place the means to a leadership transition from the current generation of politicians; swiftly moves to establish accountability and investigatory mechanisms to address those most responsible for serious crimes committed during the conflict; and introduces a new, credible mediation framework, led by states other than those that have so far mediated the crisis. 

David Deng is a South Sudanese-American human rights lawyer and researcher, and the author of “Compound fractures: political formations, armed groups and regional mediation in South Sudan.” Aly Verjee formerly served in the regional mediation that led to the 2015 peace agreement, and later on the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission overseeing compliance with that agreement.

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