Though the immediate diplomatic focus should remain on arranging a cease-fire, a longer-term political process to overcome the crisis in South Sudan will need significant involvement by the international community, particularly the United States, members of an expert panel said at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on January 10.

Pictured, left to right. Jon Temin, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, Kate Almquist Knopf, Ambassador Alan Goulty

"The international community is going to pick up the pieces and the costs of this conflict," said USIP Senior Advisor Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. Lyman and two other Africa specialists spoke at "Crisis in South Sudan," a joint USIP-Wilson Center event that is part of the Institute's efforts to assess prospects for restoring peace to the world's newest state.

More than 1,000 people have died since mid-December, when a political struggle between the country's president, Salva Kiir, and the vice president he dismissed in July, Riek Machar, ignited and quickly drew on existing tribal antagonisms. The oil-rich but impoverished country split from Sudan and became independent in July 2011.

USIP has been involved in a variety of peacebuilding and conflict-management work in South Sudan. It has supported the development of the Sudd Institute, an independent policy institution that has produced some widely read analyses on ending the crisis. USIP has conducted workshops on violence prevention before elections in 2010 and the independence referendum in 2011. And it has run 27 police-community dialogues in key locations around the country that are aimed at lowering tensions and building peaceful contacts.

The January 10 forum at USIP came a day after Lyman and others testified about the South Sudan conflict before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lyman, also a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and an assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, was joined at the Institute by Alan Goulty, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and former U.K. special envoy for and ambassador to Sudan, and by Kate Almquist Knopf, an independent consultant on African issues and former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The panel discussed aspects of the ongoing crisis and how peacemaking efforts might proceed.

Achieving a cease-fire. "Pressing ahead with that as a first step is essential," Lyman said. Goulty suggested that cease-fire monitoring arrangements in Sudan's Nuba mountains—in which the warring parties agreed to monitor compliance with international assistance—could be a model for a South Sudan cease-fire. Knopf said Kiir and Machar need to participate in cease-fire talks but expressed the hope that the effort would have a calming effect on other parties in South Sudan and quickly lead to a broader political process leading to a new, permanent constitution. Goulty agreed that a longer-term political process is needed but warned against adding other groups to already difficult cease-fire negotiations. "Let's keep it as simple as possible," he said. The experience with numerous participants in Darfur cease-fire talks is a cautionary tale for avoiding too much complexity, he said.

The roots of the crisis. Knopf said that even though it was surprising how quickly tensions devolved into violence, "the fault lines were there." Lyman said that dissension within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) had been mounting over the way that Kiir was making decisions and "clamping down on dissent." Added Lyman, "He [Kiir] began to see all these people as his enemies." A democratic process within the SPLM itself was not functioning, he said. Knopf said that other political parties will need the space to develop.

On South Sudan's national army and its divisions. Goulty argued that several years have been wasted with a lack of efforts to professionalize and unify the South Sudanese army, the collection of militias known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). He said it needs a common language, discipline and narrative. "Most [of the SPLA] are taking their turn to eat," Goulty said. "Make the SPLA earn its keep." Lyman said that the South Sudanese has never made a programmatic decision on how to professionalize the SPLA.

Questions about justice and accountability for the violence. Lyman suggested that a combination of criminal trials and "truth-telling" processes would emerge. Goulty suggested that the principle of getting to personal accountability for those who ordered the violence would have to be compromised in the interest of peace. A truth and reconciliation commission, he said, is "the only possible way forward. Nobody is going to negotiate himself into jail." Knopf said that "it is really up to the South Sudanese" to decide how to proceed on justice questions.

Future power-sharing? Knopf said it is difficult to imagine an interim political settlement in which Kiir and Machar are not involved. "They're each part of the equation for some time," she said. Goulty said the reality is that what's needed "is a patched-up job," and that both men will either need to be in or out of power with such a deal. Lyman, for his part, noted that power-sharing can not only involve individuals but also various entities and interest groups. Though the formula that could work in South Sudan is as yet unclear, Lyman said, it is doubtful that the country can return to the Kiir-Machar arrangement of the past.

The importance of U.S. leverage. Goulty discussed the importance of a continuing U.S. diplomatic presence in South Sudan despite the dangers. "If you want leverage, you need to be there." He expressed skepticism about directing targeted sanctions against those behind the violence, saying, "The collateral damage on victims is likely to be far too great." Knopf said the United States, a key backer of an independent South Sudan, enjoys "a very deep reservoir of goodwill with the people of South Sudan." She advocated stepping up pressure on Kiir and Machar to end the fighting: "The U.S. needs to level all the tools that it can."

United Nations peacekeepers. Lyman urged that the U.N. force in South Sudan "show a very tough face on protection" of civilians, including making it clear that international compounds into which tens of thousands have fled are "unbreachable." The U.N. role will need to shift to include more state-building activities, including more proactive protection and help for integrating the country's military. Goulty said the U.N. force needs stronger leadership, more helicopters to reach remote locations and more active outreach into the country's communities.

Explore further

Related Publications

South Sudan’s people have spoken on peace. Is anyone listening?

South Sudan’s people have spoken on peace. Is anyone listening?

Friday, April 16, 2021

By: Ola Mohajer;  David Deng

The United States played a key role in the emergence of South Sudan as an independent state 10 years ago. Yet today, U.S. policy toward the country is insufficient to address the continued violence or promote sustainable peace. Even so, it is not too late for U.S. policymakers to embark upon a renewed push for peace. To move forward, they should listen to what South Sudan’s people said in the recently concluded National Dialogue and incorporate its recommendations in diplomatic, humanitarian and development strategies for the country.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Conflict and Crisis in South Sudan’s Equatoria

Conflict and Crisis in South Sudan’s Equatoria

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

By: Alan Boswell

South Sudan’s civil war expanded into Equatoria, the country’s southernmost region, in 2016, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring Uganda in what has been called Africa’s largest refugee exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Equatoria is now the last major hot spot in the civil war. If lasting peace is to come to South Sudan, writes Alan Boswell, it will require a peace effort that more fully reckons with the long-held grievances of Equatorians.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

The South Sudan Peace Process Archive: A Window into Mediation

The South Sudan Peace Process Archive: A Window into Mediation

Monday, March 29, 2021

By: Zach Vertin;  Aly Verjee

As part of its commitment to learning from peace processes, the U.S. Institute of Peace is pleased to launch the South Sudan Peace Process Archive, which aims to provide South Sudanese citizens, mediators, policymakers, academics and other interested readers a window into the 2013-2015 negotiations that attempted to end the conflict that began in South Sudan in late 2013. Documents for this archive were first assembled and organized in 2016. Now, archive curators and former peace process advisers Zach Vertin and Aly Verjee discuss their motivations for assembling and organizing the documents and what they hope the archive can contribute to future peace processes.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & DialoguePeace Processes

South Sudan: From 10 States to 32 States and Back Again

South Sudan: From 10 States to 32 States and Back Again

Monday, March 1, 2021

By: Matthew Pritchard;  Aly Verjee

Last year, South Sudan reintroduced 10 subnational states in South Sudan, in place of the 32 states controversially created in 2017. Far from being an obscure matter of administrative organization, the initial, dramatic redivision of territory in the midst of protracted violence and large-scale displacement had a significant impact on representation, as well as social, economic, and political relations throughout the country. In 2018-19, researchers commissioned by USIP sought to better understand the decision-making process behind the creation of the 32 states in South Sudan. Researchers Matthew Pritchard and Aly Verjee discuss their findings in light of current developments.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications