Leaders involved in South Sudan’s conflict signed a ceasefire agreement late last week in the second such effort to end violence that has beset the world’s newest independent nation. Jon Temin, USIP’s director of Africa programs, discusses the conflict, international approaches to encourage a resolution and strategies to help move the country forward.

Government soldiers with the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army march towards the town of Bentiu in South Sudan, May 4, 2014. Government forces went on the offensive and took back the oil hub of Bentiu from rebels loyal to Riek Machar. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)
Photo courtesy of NY Times/Lynsey Addario

The fighting broke out in December when a simmering political dispute erupted between forces supporting the current president, Salva Kiir, and the former vice president, Riek Machar. Fighting often has targeted specific ethnic groups, particularly the Dinka and Nuer tribes.

USIP will host an event on Thursday, May 15 with leaders of South Sudan’s civil society to discuss the conflict.

Are you optimistic this new agreement is sustainable?  What are the ingredients for a lasting accord?

Considering that a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between these same parties in January and almost immediately violated, I think the sustainability of this agreement remains to be proven.  Everybody needs to keep a close eye on implementation.  It is a relatively brief and vague agreement – lots of the details that are still to be negotiated are vitally important. 

One of the encouraging aspects of the agreement is that it makes specific reference to involving political parties, civil society and faith-based leaders in follow-up negotiations.  Their voices are critical to ensuring that any broader agreement is not just a narrow deal between elites.

In hindsight, did we miss some signals that this kind of deterioration could happen? If so, is it possible to judge whether the slide could have been stopped?

Perhaps, but the violence that has engulfed South Sudan since December is not surprising.  Many South Sudanese and observers who follow the country knew that the fault lines were there and tensions were building.  One critique that has been made, which I think is valid, is that in hindsight, the international community did not pay enough attention to the politics at play in South Sudan, focusing instead on the more technical aspects of state-building in a new country. 

But politics – and the inability of the ruling party to manage a conflict between its two leading figures – are what triggered the violence.  Technical solutions only so go far; mature political parties and decent governance are required to manage conflicts before they turn violent. 

The international community was reluctant to engage too heavily in South Sudanese politics because it is seen as a sovereign issue.  If the new peace agreement holds, it will be interesting to see if the international community is now more willing to engage overtly political issues.

How much control do Kiir and Machar have over the soldiers and those committing the atrocities on behalf of their respective sides?

This gets to one of the major concerns with the new agreement – that neither leader, especially Machar, has anything close to full control over the forces supposedly fighting on his behalf.  Some of the commanders theoretically under Machar’s leadership have a long history of rebelling and cutting deals that serve their narrow interests.  Even if Machar is committed to the new agreement, there is no guarantee that these commanders will be, which will make for a difficult balancing act for Machar. 

There are also questions about the loyalty of some segments of the army to President Kiir (even beyond those segments that quickly defected to support Machar).  Many of those who fought over the last five months will be looking to be rewarded under the terms of any peace agreement, which will be difficult given South Sudan’s very limited resources. 

You mentioned the role of civil society being referenced in the new agreement. Why is civil society important?

A mature and robust civil society can give voice to people who do not feel represented by the belligerent parties.  South Sudan’s civil society has not yet reached this point of maturity – it is still nascent, and sometimes divided by the same fault lines that divide the country.  But there is significant potential for growth, and several organizations have done an impressive job mobilizing to respond to the recent violence. 

At some point – hopefully soon – South Sudan will enter a long process of self-reflection and negotiating its future political arrangements.  That process cannot succeed and be broadly representative without robust civil society participation.  South Sudan’s religious institutions, which reach deep into rural communities, also have important roles to play.

What do you see as the top priorities for South Sudan’s stability going forward? 

Of course ending the violence is essential. Equally important is providing humanitarian assistance to these in need, including over 1 million displaced people, as the rainy season approaches. 

But beyond those short-term needs, that process of self-reflection and defining what it means to be South Sudanese, and what it means to be part of this young nation, is vitally important. A sustained reconciliation process is required -- one that addresses the violence of the past five months, but also goes back further to address longstanding grievances. This is a process that the outside world can assist, but that fundamentally must be driven by South Sudanese.

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