Square Pegs in Round Holes? Doubts Remain Over South Sudan Peace Talks

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit in Juba (Flickr/Al Jazeera English)

News of a possible end to South Sudan’s 11-month-old conflict was received with guarded optimism at the start of February, and there were good reasons for this. On January 21, Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, brokered talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) three estranged groups (in government, in opposition, and former detainees jailed after a failed coup attempt), who had been able to agree to narrow their previous disagreement on a number of contentious issues. This represented progress toward a genuine and much prayed-for reconciliation within the ruling party. Many believed that the implementation of the resulting Arusha SPLM Reunification Agreement could pave the way for return to a stable government.

However, the recent split within the ranks of the SPLM in opposition could now delay that process. The former spokesperson for the opposition group, Lul Ruai Kong, arrived in the capital Juba on February 19 in “search of peace” and in charge of a new breakaway group known as the South Sudan Resistance Movement. This means the government must now face the difficult task of negotiating with three armed groups instead of two. It also implies a weakened armed opposition overall.

This aside, many in South Sudan were already concerned about a number of controversial items contained in the Arusha agreement. Prominent among them was the introduction of a limit of two five-year terms for the SPLM chairperson, abolishing the clause in the party’s constitution by which 5 percent of the membership of the National Liberation Council (NLC) are picked by the chairperson, and discarding voting by show of hands, in favor of a secret ballot, on controversial matters. These were precisely the amendments proposed by the leader of the original opposition faction, Riek Machar, and their previous rejection by the NLC was the reason for his earlier mutiny. It was therefore small wonder that Dr. Machar was all smiles when he signed the Arusha agreement with President Salva Mayardit. The signatories to the deal also agreed to issue a public apology for taking the country back to war in December 2013.

Attempting to build on this progress, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediated further talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 2, with President Mayardit and Dr. Machar signing off on new power-sharing arrangements. This would see the creation of two equal positions of vice presidents, one of which would be held by Dr. Machar and the other by the incumbent James Wani Igga. These appointments would mirror regional representation and ethnic balances within the country. A proposal by the mediators to reinstall Dr. Machar as the first vice president was flatly rejected by the SPLM in government.

This appeared all well and good, but many SPLM members remained somewhat cynical about the sudden turn of events. Those supporting the government expressed great disappointment with the architects of the Arusha agreement about what they described as the “watering down of democratic principles and values” and the rewarding of militaristic behavior. They were concerned that a handful of individuals were able to reverse the decisions of the more than 130 NLC members just to win back colleagues in the armed opposition. I agree that the decisions did not promote democratic practice and culture. Namely, the principle of settling differences through peaceful and cooperative dialogue should remain in place no matter how contentious the issues are, or how long it takes to build a consensus. It is a principle worth fighting for.

Moreover, the proposal to share power through a quota arrangement between the SPLM in government, the opposition wings, and other political parties, contradicts the letter and spirit of the Arusha agreement on reunification of the party. First, it means the SPLM will remain contested and highly fragmented in the post-conflict era, with the possibility of continuing intra-party fighting and an eventual return to violence. Second, it puts the emphasis on who gets what political position, as opposed to what the party needs to do in order to realize its vision of effective service delivery; building economic infrastructure; and effecting institutional, political, and security sector reforms to allow the peaceful transfer of power and creation of a society of opportunity for all.

Third, a quota arrangement of cabinet positions would mean recycling many former party politicians, who had the opportunity to serve in the past, but left with nothing positive to show for it. It will drive many a citizen to frustration and kill any hope for change. In fact, it was the failure of the party to make headway in building effective institutions and investing in adequate social services such as education, health, and infrastructure that caused SPLM leaders to take on one another in the first place, exchanging accusations and counter-accusations until the party imploded and the whole country was pushed to the brink.

Another factor to weigh in assessing the chances of a successful peace deal is the existing disconnection between leaders of the armed opposition and their field commanders. This has made it hard for the former to honor cease-fires because rebel commanders often simply do as they please. Even if commanders were now to abide by orders for peace, integrating forces with long records of rebelling into the national army would be met with stiff opposition in the government and among citizens.

Despite the complexity of the situation, the government of South Sudan and its erstwhile colleagues in the opposition are under understandable pressure from the United States and the European Union to sign a peace deal sooner rather than later, at any cost, or risk the imposition of sanctions. This includes the threat of an arms embargo, which would weaken the government more than the rebels, rendering it incapable of exercising its monopoly on violence, which it would otherwise maintain to keep the country together until such time as things fell back into place naturally. Given this, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s policy of seeking to penalize the government of South Sudan for striving to maintain security, law, and order in the face of economic challenges does not contribute to building a strong sovereign state, nor will it help to build stronger long-term US-South Sudan relations.

All in all, the efforts to bring about peace in South Sudan seem a case of attempting to force square pegs into round holes. It also appears to be a self-serving approach tailored toward appeasing disputing elites within the SPLM, while neglecting the people of South Sudan and their real needs for long-term prosperity, stability, and political freedoms.

As things stand, and in the face of increasing fragmentation of the armed opposition, it is likely that the government of South Sudan will continue to talk peace and strengthen its ability to wage war and maintain security, while it waits for such time when the armed opposition is weak enough to sign peace on terms that are more acceptable to it. And that means South Sudan will have to wait for a few more years to experience true peace.

John A. Akec is Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, South Sudan.