South Sudan is the world’s youngest nation, having come into existence on 9 July 2011. The state emerged from decades of civil war with Khartoum, which ended in 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed. The people’s hope in the new nation grew from this history and was buttressed by the independence experience.
But with time, despair began to replace hope as Africa’s newest nation slowly disintegrated, threatening to become a failed state. Citizens have lost faith in the government – a situation that has left the nation more divided than ever before. Seemingly, South Sudan’s problems were not solved by its detachment from Sudan in 2011: it remains a deeply troubled state with chronic socio-economic and political problems. The question now is whether the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) intervention in the crisis will save South Sudan from total collapse as an independent nation state.
The current crisis and war in South Sudan that started in December 2013 has gone beyond ethnicity and conflict between the two principal actors, President Salva Kiir and his estranged deputy, Riek Machar. It has become a national catastrophe, with talks of political federalism now clouding the country as various regions look for partial autonomy from the capital, Juba. With some communities gearing toward settling historical injustices through violent means, political federalism seems to be the best solution so far. However, the probability of devolving the same issues to federal units still remains high.
After three years of independence, a unitary and democratic government would have been the best bet for now, bringing all communities together before embarking on federalism. But why is this failing? South Sudanese leadership has the tendency to use war, violence and ethnic mobilisation as a means of settling political differences, ascending to power or retaining it. Moreover, no proper reconciliation processes have taken place between the principal fighters and the leadership; nor among the fighting communities. The ideals of accountability and justice have crumbled before citizens’ eyes as elites continue to use ethnicity to propel their agendas.
Taking the lead, IGAD launched an internationally backed mediation effort that resulted in a number of agreements to cease hostilities. However, these were never respected, therefore raising questions regarding the two warring parties’ commitment to ending the hostility. As things stand, the two warring parties are frustrating the IGAD negotiation process by withdrawing from it every so often.
First, the government’s delegates complained of having been insulted in the process. The opposition group then refused to attend consultations, complaining about the exclusive manner in which civil society stakeholders were selected for the negotiations. These frustrations led the IGAD mediation to be adjourned indefinitely on 26 June for consultations.
Ironically, during the commemoration of three years of independence on 9 July this year, Kiir called on Machar’s group to resume peace talks. At the same time, Machar called upon IGAD to resume talks immediately and review the selection of the stakeholders to ensure transparency, representativeness and inclusivity. The country’s third independence anniversary was thus overshadowed by a cracking war and deep ethno-political divisions; a country bleeding and on the verge of famine and collapse.
The future of South Sudan remains grim. The recent pronouncement by the government maintaining its legitimacy as the elected body by the people of South Sudan further puts the writing on the wall.
The proposal for a caretaker government, even though not the most desirable option, still remains the least probable, as it depends on the political will of the two principals. External forces and interests – especially in the extractive industry and other businesses – may also be affected by such an arrangement, as it might disorganise existing bilateral agreements with different countries.
While a government of national unity could also be a possibility, the biggest worry would be how to manage the ideological differences. The obstinacy of the two principals demonstrates the high probability of the current crisis recurring under a government of national unity, unless stringent measures are put in place. A government of national unity can only be a temporary measure to ensure stability and prevent further violence and the collapse of the state.
The other option will be for IGAD to start laying grounds to facilitate fresh elections. This will mean that the two parties have to agree on modalities and mechanisms to be put in place to ensure free and fair elections. Another issue will be the finalisation of the ‘permanent constitution,’ which should be agreed through a referendum. But the risk of either of the two main actors failing to accept defeat after the elections and going back to war still remains.
Faced with a dark cloud of smoking guns and a high ethno-political polarisation in South Sudan, IGAD and the international community should raise the mediation game a notch higher by taking the peace talks to the local community level in the country. There should be a focus on the democratisation processes, greater space for civic participation, comprehensive accountability, truth, justice and a well-thought-out roadmap to achieving durable peace and stability.
The current IGAD process might lead to an elite solution if it fails to touch on the underlying causes of the crisis. What is taking place in Addis Ababa could end up as a quick fix to political settlement, without building bridges across social divides. Key international and regional actors must also be roped in to exert greater influence and pressure – including sanctions on the two principals, their families and allies. It is in these ways that the country could be saved from the brink of collapse and its citizens’ hope and optimism could be resuscitated.
Sebastian Gatimu is Researcher in the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at ISS Nairobi.