South Sudanese First Vice President Riek Machar, left, and President Salva Kiir after the first meeting of a new transitional government, Juba, South Sudan, April 29, 2016 (AP photo by Jason Patinkin).
South Sudan’s original political odd couple is back together again. In late April, President Salva Kiir watched over the swearing in of his very recent rival and enemy, Riek Machar, as first vice president before declaring that the ceremony marked “the end of the war and the return of peace and stability to South Sudan.”
Is Kiir right? While the homecoming for Machar, the vice president-turned-rebel leader, is a crucial initial step in returning peace to South Sudan, it is only that. And it would be dangerous to reduce the peace process to simply the state of the relationship between the two leaders.
South Sudan’s civil conflict began in December 2013, when a firefight broke out in a military barracks outside the capital, Juba, between rival forces aligned with Kiir and Machar. This came just months after Kiir removed Machar from the vice presidency. In the days that followed the clash, as troops from Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer, fled the city, forces loyal to Kiir began what the United Nations Mission in South Sudan described as “targeted killings of civilians of Nuer origin following house-to-house searches.” Within days, the fighting had spread to the country’s northeast, and Machar had declared himself officially in rebellion.
Those initial days of violence in Juba in 2013 are critical to understanding the opposition that developed. As the International Crisis Group has argued, the fighting that followed was primarily a reaction to the Nuer massacre in Juba and not necessarily a response to Machar’s personal revolt and subsequent creation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—In Opposition (SPLA-IO). “Many Nuer SPLA as well as Nuer youth rebelled before the SPLA-IO existed,” the International Crisis Group has pointed out. The massacre in Juba also set the tone for subsequent atrocities committed by both sides, including kidnapping, rape, torture and extrajudicial killings.
A group of SPLA-IO officials underscored this point in a letter they sent to peace negotiators in August 2015, describing themselves as “political and military forces that are opposed to [the] Juba regime which has turned its guns against innocent civilians.” In the same letter, they denounced both Machar for mismanaging the rebellion, as well as any peace plan that offered a return to the “status quo that plunged the Country to the current civil war.”
It would be dangerous to reduce South Sudan’s peace process to the state of the relationship between Kiir and Machar.
But will Machar’s return last month actually build toward a justice and reconciliation process and, eventually, a new government and reformed security sector that appease all combatants—not just Kiir and Machar’s immediate constituencies?
Machar’s arrival in Juba certainly jumpstarted South Sudan’s stalled peace process, which has sputtered since a deal was signed in August 2015. Last month, within days of Machar’s swearing in to the newly created position of first vice president—one of the agreement’s requirements—the two sides were announcing a transitional government of national unity, another of the outlined steps.
But that did not stop the author of the earlier letter from the SPLA-IO leadership, Peter Gatdet, from penning another missive denouncing the new government and warning that he and other former SPLA-IO generals would “take action immediately.”
It is tempting to dismiss threats from Gatdet, the former head of the South Sudan Liberation Army and a frequent declarer of rebellions, but not wise. His perspective is shared by thousands of people across South Sudan who worry that the new government is intent on papering over the roots of the two-and-a-half-year conflict. The result would be only a superficial peace.
The August agreement, though imperfect, is designed to prevent that from happening, so long as it is followed.
Among the deal’s many requirements are the establishment of a commission for truth, reconciliation and healing; an independent hybrid judicial body; and a compensation and repatriation authority. These components have gotten little attention from either the Machar or Kiir camps. The president’s speech following Machar’s swearing in, for instance, was long on forgiveness, as he called on South Sudanese politicians and citizens “to put their differences and personal interests aside for the welfare of our independence.” But it was short on accountability.
Religious leaders, civil society groups and international watchdogs, meanwhile, have maintained a steady demand for justice and reconciliation mechanisms. They will likely need to continue to do so to ensure they are not sidelined.
Even more difficult is the task of creating a government and, under it, a security sector that feel inclusive to people outside of the national army, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), that grew out of it. Though rejected by Gatdet, the three-year transitional government did include a smattering of opposition leaders, alongside many SPLM stalwarts.
The new government will now have several opportunities to win over its doubters, beginning with drafting South Sudan’s first permanent constitution, which was postponed in the country’s rush to independence in 2011. They have 27 months to ratify a document, according to the August agreement, before elections that are scheduled to take place as the transitional government’s three-year term expires.
Perhaps more critical are the security sector reforms, which are not off to a good start. Machar’s return was predicated on acarefully calibrated distribution of forces by both sides within Juba. Any additional government troops were ordered to move about 15 miles outside the capital. But it’s not clear that ever happened.
The body tasked with confirming the demilitarization, the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism, has been hampered in its efforts. And a leaked memo from the Kenyan ambassador to South Sudan days before Machar’s arrival warned that the two camps were “trying to outdo each other amassing troops and armaments around the capital.”
If the two sides are unwilling to meet the basic demilitarization requirements, it bodes ill for the completion of the six-month Strategic Defense and Security Review, culminating in the reunification of forces. The worst-case scenario, of course, is that the build-up presages another clash in Juba and the complete abandonment of the peace process.
Plenty of additional stumbling blocks remain, including Kiir’s October move to divide South Sudan administratively, from 10 states into 28. The decree undermined the state-level power-sharing arrangement struck in the peace deal and has earned the scorn of both Machar and the international community. There is also the task of addressing the systemic corruption that plagued the government before the fighting began, as well as somehow dealing with the complete collapse of the country’s economy. And the list goes on.
Machar’s return to Kiir’s government was welcome, but peace in South Sudan is hardly the inevitable outcome.
Andrew Green is a foreign correspondent based in East Africa. He writes often from the region on issues of health, human rights and politics, and his work has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New Republic and The Washington Post, among other outlets. You can view more of his reporting at www.theandrewgreen.com.