On September 12, after nearly nine months of talks, the warring parties in South Sudan signed a “revitalized” peace agreement, superseding a 2015 accord and bringing an end to the High Level Revitalization Forum. But fighting has continued in the days since the deal was signed, and many remain skeptical that this agreement will succeed. USIP’s Aly Verjee discusses the deal.

Street scene at the market in Yambio, South Sudan. (UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)
Street scene at the market in Yambio, South Sudan. (UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)

What is new in this agreement?

Much of the focus has been on the figures: the number of ministers, vice presidents and parliamentarians, the share of positions that each party receives, and the threshold required for decision making. There is also a new, accelerated timetable for the integration of the armed forces, a revised, extended timetable for the reforms required by the 2015 deal, the potentially problematic extension of power sharing to the county level of government, and a series of new commissions to address the boundary disputes that have arisen following the creation of new states in South Sudan in late 2015.

But one has to look beyond the text to see other important changes of context: in August 2015, it was the government that was reluctant to sign and attempting to attach reservations to the deal, while the main opposition was more supportive of the text. In September 2018, the government signed unconditionally, accepting many of the same political, economic, and accountability reforms to which it was once averse. Meanwhile, some in the opposition are expressing concerns at what they see as a failure to address “root causes” of the conflict, and others reject the agreement entirely. The agreement also provides for a much more intrusive role for Sudan and Uganda. 

Why then did the government agree to the deal?

There are several reasons. First, the deal allows the incumbent government to remain in place, avoiding a challenge of legitimacy caused by the expiration of its term of office. Second, the agreement does not require a new government to be formed until an eight month “pre-transitional” period passes, allowing the current regime to carry on as it pleases, at least for the time being. It may well take much longer than eight months to establish that new government (the 2015 agreement had a three month “pre-transitional” period, and it took until April 2016, more than eight months, for the transitional government to be established). Third, the government has learned that it can selectively implement provisions of the agreement it deems useful, and ignore, delay or frustrate the rest, without any consequences from the region or the international community. Fourth, the government is now in a militarily superior position to the opposition. It does not believe the opposition can enforce the agreement’s obligations, paradoxically making it easier to agree to such commitments. Fifth, the agreement may allow the government’s economic standing to improve, with oil production in previously conflict-affected areas resuming, and oil prices rising, generating greater government revenue.

Finally, the regional powers seem disinclined to challenge Juba. They seem to have accepted that President Kiir should remain in office for the foreseeable future. Given the region’s position, Juba might as well go along with the mediation’s proposal, knowing it has a free hand once the ink on the text is dry.

What are the risks of this agreement?

As I wrote a month ago, security arrangements remain crucial to the viability of any agreement. Disappointingly, neither the South Sudanese parties, nor the mediation, nor its international supporters, have addressed the most critical deficiencies of the security arrangements in the 2018 agreement. 

Chief among these are the security arrangements for South Sudan’s cities. This agreement does not spell out these provisions. Instead, it says that another meeting in Khartoum will be held within 14 days (therefore by September 26), to “determine the type and size of security forces needed for the protection of all cities.” From Wau to Yambio to Malakal to Juba, South Sudan’s cities have been the scenes of much of the most brutal and horrific violence of the civil war. Urban security arrangements are not mere technical matters that can be de-linked from intensely political questions of territorial control and local governance. However, the most likely outcome now is a subsequent agreement to further militarize South Sudan’s cities. This won’t deliver real security to most citizens, and it could well lead to new clashes.

The agreement also requires an unrealistic timeline for the integration of forces previously in combat: the text says that the “training and redeployment of the necessary unified forces shall be completed within a period that shall not exceed eight months.”

This may lead to integration on paper, but not on the ground. Building a truly national army is more than a question of a commander, and his men, agreeing to change sides. It requires a fundamental attitudinal shift toward a vision of the armed forces existing to defend the nation, rather than to fight one’s immediate neighbors. As the recent fighting in Kajo Keji county suggests, absent political will, violence between government forces and opposition forces can carry on unabated. Prematurely integrating forces that loath each other could make the situation more volatile.

Military cantonment—the process of assembling and ordering troops in a given location—is also fraught with difficulty. The agreement requires all forces to be cantoned, on condition that they should be of a size “not less than a battalion.” In a functional, disciplined army, that might be a reasonable condition. In South Sudan, where military defections, irregular formations, and informal militias are common, fighting forces are rarely organized in this way, especially among the opposition groups that have pursued guerrilla tactics. In the past, cantonment has been perceived as a way to reward troops and allow for new recruitment. The risk now is that, seeking to meet the cantonment threshold of a battalion (roughly 600 troops), a new wave of recruitment will occur, only inflating the ranks of men with arms throughout the country.

If the agreement is so problematic, why did many South Sudanese civil society groups welcome the deal? Are there any positive aspects?

It is positive that most of the economic, humanitarian, and accountability reforms and institutions agreed in 2015 have been preserved in the 2018 agreement, as much as they may be overshadowed by the governance and security provisions, and despite the many doubts about the parties’ intention to implement those provisions.

It is notable that the jurisdiction of the yet to be formed Hybrid Court for South Sudan, to investigate and prosecute those that have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, has been extended through the end of the new transitional period (which, should the timeline be adhered to, ends in May 2022.) The original jurisdiction of the court was limited to crimes committed from the outbreak of the civil war in December 2013 to the end of the term of the government established by the 2015 agreement. Given the continuation of the civil war since 2016, the court will have no shortage of atrocities to investigate, although, even in the best case, any prosecutions remain years away.

Civil society’s welcoming of the deal reflects a broader societal demand for peace, and the hope that this time might be different. And there are certainly provisions in the agreement that respond to the calls civil society has made for reform. Many people have concluded that even if they are worried about the terms of the deal, it is necessary to be pragmatic: accept that this is the framework in place and try to use it to make the situation better.

Ultimately, much depends on the government. President Kiir told South Sudanese on September 15 that he “welcome[s] any skepticism because it will only fuel our resolve to consolidate peace in our country … Fellow citizens, I want to appeal to all of you to embrace and accept this agreement … we have decided to forgive each other and to move our country forward.”

Fine words, but the proof is, and will be, in the president’s actions: some political prisoners have been reportedly released, but many more are still in custody. The websites of critical media outlets are still blocked, and independent reporting still severely curbed. As the U.N. secretary-general writes in his most recent report, “violence against humanitarian workers and assets escalated [during the reporting period of June to September 2018].” And, perhaps, most crucially to the prospects of any enduring peace, as Kajo Keji suggests, the government’s military remains on the offensive.

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