By Majak D’Agoôt and Remember Miamingi
No country is entirely self-contained or lacking in interdependencies. These interlocking interests form the critical part of any country’s existence. Therefore, compartmentalising South Sudan in matters of interconnectedness is, at best, disingenuous, and at worst, sheer political autarky.
In December 2013, South Sudan descended into a brutal civil war. More than two years after independence, political division and contestation for power within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) quickly turned violent. One cause of this atrocious conflict was the fact that the de jure state had failed to become a de facto state with efficient, fair, politically neutral and transparent institutions capable of serving public interests. Governance institutions remain weak and politicised, lacking oversight. In the absence of a credible and coherent opposition, the government has maintained power via coercion. A highly militarised society and state have left no room for civil society, the media and non-partisan spaces to expand. Rather, this context has created fertile ground for impunity and a breakdown of rule of law.
In the absence of a history of governance and legitimate institutions, South Sudan, as a failing and fragile state, has easily become a source of incalculable security risks, a threat to peace and security domestically, regionally and internationally. Domestic security challenges arising from the rubble of a collapsed state are contagious and transcend its borders. As a result, South Sudan poses an acute risk to international security in the form of transnational organised crime, arms proliferation, civil conflict, terrorism and health hazards. Moreover, given the historical affinities between South Sudan and its immediate neighbours, the region’s countries are not only culturally intertwined but also geographically contiguous. Consequently, South Sudan is not only part of the African continent; it is also an important geopolitical player in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. In other words, South Sudan occupies a geostrategic position.
It is these interlocking risks that partly motivated regional actors to play an active role in South Sudan’s conflict. Since 2013, beyond the limits of judicial sovereignty, South Sudan’s regional neighbours and international partners have been impelled to respond to risks affecting the country. Strictly, one government’s blunders, resulting from its own untamed wagering, affect the neighbourhood and humanity at large. They should be viewed as occurrences within a wider ecosystem of risks, which may have blood-curdling implications across national borders. Specifically, trans-boundary criminality, such as foreign insurgencies from Sudan and Uganda operating in South Sudan, has increased – and international borders have become less relevant. Hence, its neighbours have the right to intervene, as they did in the past, especially during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005). Fundamentally, a state that considers its sovereignty a license to destroy itself and its people is an illegitimate enterprise.
Applying fire protection measures to one’s property – fire retardants or fire extinguishers – ensures a neighbourhood’s safety; in the same way, regional peace and security requires a united effort. For good or ill, decision-making powers in Juba as well as the armed opposition have already crossed borders to regional capitals, with serious ramifications. As the conflict intensifies, the geographic boundaries of national politics and economics are likely to ebb and flow accordingly.
Hawks in Juba have exaggerated the debate on South Sudan’s borders and sovereignty – even if its rulers are acting irresponsibly – in order to distract from the dire humanitarian situation caused by this manufactured disaster. To the extent that state-society relations are central to the functioning of a political entity, the underpinnings of popular and empirical sovereignty have been deliberately buried. State functions, such as the effective administration of territories, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, taxation, provision of public security, etc. are not viewed by the gun-toting leadership in Juba as critical to the government’s mandate.
Such dismal failure and utter denial does not allow a polity to generate a moral voice to claim legitimacy over the population and territories that are under its juridical control. A state operating at the peak of legitimacy is dangerously hollowed out. Clearly, it subjects itself to a low fire-sale price in the eyes of its citizens and allies – and as prey for its enemies. Substantive debate around sovereignty must include rights and responsibilities to act in tandem with national and international laws.
South Sudan’s independence followed decades of bloody conflict and enormous sacrifices by its people. Since 1955, southern Sudanese had taken up arms to end colonialism at the hands of their northern, Arab neighbours. South Sudan’s independence also rested upon significant, sustained regional and international efforts. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region and the USA played a key role in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), leading up to the 2011 independence referendum.
Since a change of established borders – especially the breakup of a fragile state like Sudan – is fraught with risks, the regional and international community closely followed developments in South Sudan. After the CPA’s signing on 9 January 2005, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1590, establishing the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Following South Sudan’s independence, and in light of the newborn state’s perceived fragility and potential threats to international security, the UNSC adopted resolutions 1996 (2011) and 2057 (2012), respectively, which established and extended the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) – a peacekeeping mission, in accordance with Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter. Both UNMIS and UNMISS have involved large military components. In addition, UNMISS established a high-level mechanism to ensure the alignment of its goals to government priorities. Further spheres of cooperation include peace consolidation; decentralisation; infrastructure development; constitutional review; security sector reform, including disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration; conflict prevention; and administration of justice.
Despite the unanimity leading to the establishment of UNMIS and UNMISS – both played an important role in keeping the UNSC actively involved in the peace-building process – external actors have played a negligible role in South Sudan’s state-building process. In fact, the UN system together with other external actors only succeeded in applying astute diplomatic strategies to maintain the peace during an interim period. On many other levels, however, such interventions have borne limited results in achieving the desired goals. More importantly, many external actors saw the region as a complex, continuous emergency, focusing their efforts on humanitarian aid rather than post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. Regardless of a limited shift to development assistance in 2011, the complex emergency response argument quickly appeared whenever levels of insecurity increased in the country.
Whether the 2013 crisis was the natural outcome of a false start or an inevitable tumble, the transformation of UNMIS into UNMISS under a new mandate in 2011 did have benefits. In 2012, when interethnic raids intensified in Jonglei, especially in Pibor County, UNMISS intervention prevented possible ethnic cleansing through mass violence, looting, widespread displacement and starvation. In 2013, UNMISS humanitarian action was remarkably swift. In an atmosphere of targeted killings and revenge attacks, thousands of victims found protection within UNMISS bases in Juba, Malakal, Bentiu and Bor. As violence gained traction, the mission also provided periodic reports and updates on the dire human rights situation in the country.
Throughout the conflict, an array of parties – the IGAD, AU, and the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) – took part in intensive mediation efforts, which culminated in the August 2015 peace deal meant to arrest the crisis at an embryonic stage. However, the 2015 peace deal was a compromise. It called for power-sharing and reform leading to a national constitution-making process. It also called for mechanisms to deal with crimes committed during the war and to prepare for democratic elections. The parties to the agreement have never been satisfied with its power-sharing and security components, and implementation got off to a slow start because of disagreements over timing and conflicting interpretations of the way forward.
Nearly a year after the deal was signed many of its security and political milestones have been only partially implemented. For instance, Juba was supposed to be demilitarised, but there remains heavy deployment everywhere; planned joint military and police units have yet to be established, and contrary to the agreement, rival forces have not been cantoned. These disagreements reached their peak in July 2016 when the main parties to the agreement resorted to fighting in the streets of Juba. When the civil war resumed, the IGAD, AU, Troika and the UN embarked on a last-ditch effort to save the deal, which resulted in UNSC Resolution 2304 of 2016.
The post-July 2016 conflict in Juba
There is little accord about what triggered the return to war. Whatever the preferred interpretation, one thing is certain: the Juba conflict resulted from the selective and poor implementation of the security components of the 2015 peace deal and a deep sense of mutual distrust between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, South Sudan’s president and vice president, respectively. The fighting dims prospects for the 2015 peace deal’s successful implementation, a fact further aggravated by the splintering of the SPLM-in-Opposition [CS1]and the swearing in of Taban Deng Gai as the new first vice president. Any trust that might have existed between the main parties has now vanished. The dire economic situation and mushrooming of new rebel movements across the country make the need for a functioning government all the more urgent. The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and looming famine further complicate an already hopelessly complex situation. According to the UN, a third of South Sudan’s population, nearly five million people, faces ‘dangerous levels’ of hunger and the ‘worst famine in the world’.
After the carnage in Juba, there are two potential outcomes: a return to the status quo ante and a full, immediate and unconditional implementation of the agreement, or a return to full-scale war. The former is the easiest, most principled, least costly and best scenario. The international community knows and supports the roadmap. However, clearly the main parties to the conflict lack the political will to proceed with the agreement. This could very well return the country to full-blown war. Obviously this scenario would be costly, complex and unpredictable. If war breaks out, many different armed groups could become involved with no end in sight. Regional or international players may enter the fray, further complicating the situation.
In order to encourage the former and discourage the latter, the UNSC passed Resolution 2304 of 2016. The resolution strengthens the UNMISS mandate, increases its capacity and capabilities, and provides for the deployment of a regional force to operate within the command structure of UNMISS, but with a specific mandate to provide, by all means, protection to civilians, to protect vital state installations and to ensure humanitarian access. In the event of non-cooperation from the Government of South Sudan, the UNSC may impose an arms embargo and further sanctions.
The way forward
In the wake of UNSC 2304 and the Security Council visit in September, the Government of South Sudan, in its usual waggish behaviour embarked upon semantic negotiations focusing on the differences between intervention and protection or consent and acceptance, as a means to barter and delay the regional protection force’s deployment through a game of synonyms. Yet, beyond the logjam of Juba’s doublespeak on the deployment, external actors have continued to engage with South Sudan, in order not to leave the nascent state to its own devices. Simply put, the region and the international community have taken on a unique ‘brother’s keeper role’ in order to preserve a fragile peace in South Sudan. However, Juba must be disabused of its tendency to intensify semantic arguments or commoditise and mis-sell sovereignty. Its actions and veiled threats to bludgeon internal dissent and gag civil society voices that support the regional protection force’s deployment must stop.
Worse still, the government will try to deceive the regional and international community as a way of watering down Resolution 2304 and the peace agreement itself. If it succeeds to call the international community’s bluff and impose what has been described as Pax Salvatica, South Sudan will find itself on a staircase to hell.
Therefore, the force’s deployment should not be an end in itself as it is not a sufficient condition for South Sudan to exit the conflict. Rather, the emergence of a resilient state requires profound and long-term engagement in peace consolidation and peace-building, reconciliation, healing and accountability, in addition to the creation of durable governance institutions. Such efforts will open up a political space to promote a smooth transition to democracy and crowd out violence in the exercise of political power in the country. This premise justifies the call for a roundtable of all stakeholders including political groups, civil society, and faith-based groups, in addition to partners of South Sudan, to repair aspects of the peace deal that have been fractured by violations and delayed implementation, and to produce an abbreviated, actionable roadmap for the transition. This is more practical than the current life-support option, which calls for either a form of neo-trusteeship/trusteeship or a UN transitional administration.
In particular, the images of President Kiir and former vice president Machar have been terribly tarnished by their self-serving agendas, as highlighted in a 2016 report on corruption, which implicates the two politicians, their families and cronies. Morally, the two leaders are unfit to be part of the transition. A roundtable conference should explore the possibility of a transitional arrangement that excludes Kiir and Machar. A return to the status quo ante must be on the basis of a modified peace deal that embraces a four-year-tenured caretaker administration led by carefully vetted national personalities and technocrats who will have no stake in the future politics of South Sudan. Such an arrangement must be buttressed by powerful international security and political oversight in form of a reinforced Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC). This entails a split of executive authority between the caretaker administration and JMEC. This arrangement must be based on an all-party consensus derived from the deliberations of the roundtable conference.
As the country sits precariously on a cliff, it may fall and hit the surface with a minimum blow. Thereafter, to paraphrase former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, if the world does not seize the moment opportunely, no amount of effort and innovation will be able to put humpty dumpty back together again.
Majak D’Agoôt is an economist and security risk analyst with wide-ranging expertise in war, security and politics. He is a former deputy minister of defence and veteran of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005)
Remember Miamingi is an international lawyer based at the Centre for Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria in South Africa
Alternatively, SPLM-IO is also known as anti-government forces (AGF) according to Wikipedia, or we could just refer to ‘the opposition’, if that would suffice.