This week, a new proposal for a power sharing government was tabled at the ongoing Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) peace talks for South Sudan. An earlier, 2015 peace deal also contained a formula for power sharing; that arrangement failed and the civil war re-ignited a year later. Power sharing arrangements are appropriate if certain conditions are met, but not enough has been done to ensure the latest proposal will overcome the obstacles present in South Sudan, according to Susan Stigant, USIP’s director for Africa programs and Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP and a former senior advisor to the IGAD mediation, who comment on the proposal and suggest how it could be improved.

Civilian militantssit atop a truck in Nasir, South Sudan

What is power sharing and when does it succeed?

Stigant: Power sharing refers to broad-based governing coalitions generally inclusive of all major political constituencies. These constituencies could be geographically, ethnically, or regionally organized. A “unity government,” as power sharing governments are often called, gives citizens greater confidence that security and other basic needs will be met because their own constituency is directly represented in the executive. Power sharing arrangements often require consensus decision-making to ensure that the rights of minority groups are protected.

Power sharing governments are most likely to succeed when they meet four conditions. First, there must be trust, commitment and willingness among the principal political leaders to work together. Political elites must be willing to exercise collective leadership. Second, decisions by the unity government should be kept to the essential. Clearly defined and manageable priorities, agreed in advance, enhance the likelihood of success. Third, both informal and formal dispute resolution mechanisms should be established and empowered to address the disputes that arise during the implementation period. Fourth, a robust and transparent mechanism should exist to monitor progress in the government’s clearly defined tasks. This requires active, sustained participation by diplomats, international organizations and citizens’ groups.

Verjee: Power sharing arrangements are a short-term fix for a long-term problem. Such arrangements should be finite and transitional, and prepare the country for a more democratic and inclusive form of government, rather than entrenching patterns of domination by political elites.

Power sharing has to be more than a zero-sum game, and more than a license to divide the spoils of the state. If, for example, one party’s control of the ministry of petroleum—oil is the most lucrative element of South Sudan’s economy—is seen as a loss by other groups, power sharing arrangements will be inherently unstable; one or more parties may feel the need to undermine the other to remedy its “loss.” The same can be said for the highly contested politics at the state level, where governors hold a great deal of power and yet are highly vulnerable to the whims of the national government. 

If the conditions for successful power sharing did not exist in South Sudan in 2015, why was it included as part of the peace agreement?

Verjee: Many criticized the mediation for pursuing power sharing arrangements in the 2015 agreement. Inappropriate though they may have been, power sharing arrangements were included in that agreement because they were the parties’ preferred option—it was what those fighting then wanted. There was comfort, and familiarity, in applying a model akin to the earlier Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which prior to South Sudan’s independence featured a power sharing arrangement between northern Sudan and the then autonomous southern region.

Mediation, unfortunately, is not about getting everything the mediators think best, even if that means being left with inappropriate solutions. That said, the facilitators of the HLRF should be conscious of the failures of the 2015 power sharing structure and not advance a proposal that is structurally similar to what failed so dramatically previously.

Stigant: Power sharing is a popular remedy for governance coming out of crisis. Beyond South Sudan, power sharing agreements were attempted in South Africa after apartheid, Liberia after its civil war, Kenya following the disputed 2007 elections, and in Zimbabwe in 2008. Each of these agreements  partially addressed the problems of that context. But not all problems are best addressed through power sharing.

Power sharing has become an easy answer. It means that most of those fighting for power get seats. Unfortunately, reshuffling positions was not an antidote for violent conflict, either in 2015 or today.

How do you assess IGAD’s latest proposal on power sharing that was tabled at the HLRF?

Verjee: Bluntly, the current proposal is inadequate. Some negotiators at the talks may still demand or prefer a power sharing model, but it didn’t work in 2015, so the benefit of the doubt should not be extended again now. Indeed, it would be naïve to expect such a model to work now when the conditions for its success do not exist. 

The current proposal does not address how disputes are resolved between the president and the vice-presidents, which is where the government collapsed in 2016.  Maintaining an all-powerful presidency erodes the meaning of power sharing at subsidiary levels—whether at cabinet or in the states. Nor does the current proposal establish how legislative or judicial independence can be promoted to counterbalance the power of the executive. Finally, by guaranteeing office to the sitting president—and most likely his former first vice-president – for another three years, the ambitions of both men to occupy the highest office in the land will be deferred, but not diminished, setting up the prospect of further conflict at the end of the next transitional government.

Stigant: The latest proposal breaks from conventional terminology when it speaks of “responsibility sharing” rather than power sharing. While changing the name won’t necessarily change practices, it is useful to remind members of the government that they have obligations beyond holding a seat. The draft agreement outlines a clear appointment procedure for ministers, comparable to that of the 2015 agreement, which was unfortunately disregarded. If this procedure was implemented, it could lead to a more equitable division of ministerial portfolios. 

The current draft lacks detailed formal dispute resolution mechanisms. For the principle of collegiality and consensus decision-making to be achieved, a formulation to break deadlocks is necessary. Informal mechanisms for resolving disputes and reaching agreement are also needed.

If a narrow power sharing model is inappropriate for South Sudan, what should be done?

Verjee: Some parties have advanced a more merit-based, technocratic government. For that to be achieved, there need to be sufficient technocrats and the political will for a technocratic government to not be interfered with by other interested elites. Whether both of those elements exist is in doubt, but some elements of a more meritocratic government should be considered. 

A transitional government with limited responsibilities should have an executive with constrained powers so that the government is not itself a cause of further conflict. For example, the executive should not be able to fire state governors for the duration of the transition. Military promotions should be frozen for the duration of the transition. Improved regional and international oversight of South Sudan’s economy—which has been systematically mismanaged and led to both an economic and humanitarian collapse—should be included in any governance arrangement, limited to the period of transition but sufficient to get South Sudan out of its current morass.

Stigant: Ultimately, South Sudan needs to transform the relationship between the state and the citizen. Composition of the national government matters, but action matters more.  Citizens judge the success of government based on what it delivers: Are families safe? Do markets function and have food? Are schools and clinics functional? This daily experience has little relationship with structures in the capital.

The national government—whatever its form—should facilitate that work. Local government—the county commissioners, traditional leaders and village administrative structures—matter too. Local governance merits further attention and support from mediators and their international partners, so that South Sudanese truly feel the benefits of any peace agreement reached, beyond the arrangements in a distant capital.

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