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Can South Sudan change its approach to politics?

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ISS TODAY 17 MAR 2020

The formation of South Sudan’s new unity government on 22 February is a major milestone in recent efforts to restore peace in that country. This is the first successful attempt to form an inclusive government since 2016.

The swearing-in of Sudan’s opposition leader Riek Machar and four other vice presidents was a relief not only to the South Sudanese people, but to the many regional and international actors involved in Sudan’s peace efforts.

Yet the diplomatic pressure needed to secure the last-minute deal has left many wondering whether the actors will be committed to the outcome of the process. Will the way ahead for the new unity arrangement differ from the failed 2016 attempt, and can it bring about lasting peace?

Despite the fragile nature of the unity government, there are numerous major improvements on the previous agreement that give rise to cautious optimism. Apart from the fact that the June 2018 ceasefire seems to be holding, the compromises the parties made in the run-up to 22 February are key.

Under intense pressure, President Salva Kiir Mayardit reversed his controversial decree to create 32 states in South Sudan and accepted a return to the pre-war 10 states. Machar also backed down on his earlier insistence on having his own private security on his return to Juba, accepting government protection.

This was significant given previous attempts on Machar’s life. In 2016 he had to flee on foot from Juba to the Democratic Republic of Congo after being pursued by government forces. Many believe the weight of these compromises suggests some level of commitment to the process.

And while Kiir’s government has had the upper hand on the battlefield against the various opposition forces, it’s failed to maintain a healthy relationship with key international actors and to sustain the international goodwill the country had at independence. The Kiir government’s lack of political will and poor human rights record has had a negative impact and towards the end of the pre-transitional period it increasingly slipped into an antagonistic relationship with major powers.

Regionally the lack of progress contributed to a wait-and-see attitude by some countries, including Kenya, which became notably absent from regional diplomatic efforts regarding South Sudan.

Meanwhile Machar’s opposition group has also been on the back foot since the collapse of the 2015 peace agreement, and has lacked the capacity to match the government’s military strength. The proliferation of armed groups and the emergence of leaders such as Thomas Cirillo Swaka and Paul Malong Awan to contest Machar’s dominance of the opposition space has also diluted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition’s (SPLM-IO) position as the go-to party for those opposing Kiir.

The government and the main opposition (SPLM-IO) were locked in a stalemate that would have been difficult for either to sustain in the long run.

The formation of the current unity government is in the interest of both leaders, as it gives them new relevance. Many believe this could motivate Kiir and Machar to work together in the interest of peace, rather than against each other.

Despite optimism in some circles, however, there is still deep mistrust between Kiir and Machar. Machar intends to contest Kiir for the presidency, and it isn’t clear how Kiir might respond to this. The antagonism between the two over this issue helped trigger the 2013 crisis.

Bringing the two into the unity government without any significant changes to the underlying contestation between them effectively restores the status quo.

The formation of the current unity government can thus at best be described as patching up South Sudan’s broken political space. This is necessary for interim peace, but offers no lasting solution to the country’s underlying drivers of instability.

It is an arrangement that assumes the two rivals will look beyond their differences to find a working formula for dealing with the crisis. Despite increasing the number of vice presidents, there’s no indication that this will generate any new ideas. Facilitators of the peace process must continue to build confidence among members of the rather large presidency.

The current configuration has effectively returned South Sudan to its pre-war political context. It raises questions as to whether the country’s politics can be reconstructed to revolve around the state rather than personalities.

One of the risks to the new government is that the opposition could again fracture if the expectations of the various interest groups aren’t met. The existence of armed groups outside the current process and outstanding security arrangements are also crucial matters that will determine the unity government’s success. Any defecting faction is likely to join the groups currently outside the unity government.

In a country with a history of political fracturing and transactional politics, managing existing interests, differences over emerging interests, and outstanding issues is a delicate balancing act. Any further splintering of the armed groups will offset gains made in forming the unity government and could derail the process.

A key lesson from current developments in South Sudan is that concerted regional and international efforts that support willing domestic initiatives can make a major difference. The regional consensus that informed the final push to end the pre-transition phase and the pressure that came with it should continue in order to sustain the unity government. Development partners must adopt a common voice in their messages for maximum impact.

The African Union Peace and Security Council should commend the parties for making the necessary last-minute concessions to establish the unity government. The council should also decisively reiterate its rejection of spoilers and its readiness to sanction any policy or action by individuals, entities and groups aimed at sabotaging peace in South Sudan. 

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