Can South Sudan’s Fragile Peace Agreement Endure?

South Sudan President Salva Kiir signs a peace agreement to end fighting with rebels led by his former deputy Riek Machar. August 26, 2015. (Charles Lodomong/AFP/Getty Images)

After close to two years of fighting and up to eight attempts to make peace in South Sudan, yet another accord was signed and recently ratified, by a reluctant President Salva Kiir, and rebel leader Riek Machar. Following a 72-hour cessation of hostilities, the Compromise Peace Agreement’s (CPA) implementation phase began August 29 and the deal was unanimously approved by the country’s parliament on September 10. This crucial initial period could see steps towards the creation of a transitional power-sharing government and the strict enforcement of a permanent ceasefire. However, continued attacks by both forces and their allied militias, as well as early logistical hitches in implementing the CPA, could pose significant risks to its success.

Although South Sudan’s latest peace is a positive sign of regional and international collaboration to make Kiir and Machar lay down their guns, the mediation, led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and various Western partners (IGAD-Plus), did not extend to separatist militias, which might hinder attempts to definitively end the conflict.

Despite the accord’s stipulation of a permanent ceasefire, attacks on rebels bases have reportedly occurred in villages in the southern Central Equatoria State, while in the oil-rich northeastern Upper Nile State, a battle for control of Malakal County has continued to flare up, allegedly resulting in the deaths of several soldiers. Previous aerial raids and ambushes in Malakal have prompted the United States and the United Nations Security Council to strongly condemn the continued fighting, urging both signatories to uphold the peace agreement. Mapping out some concerns on the threat of renewed violence, the Security Council has stressed the importance of engaging rebel and army generals to prevent them from further taking up arms.

Some military leaders on both sides have expressed disapproval of Kiir and Machar’s compromise and formed their own breakaway groups with a promise to continue fighting. A dissident opposition faction previously aligned with Machar’s side has claimed responsibility for an assault on military boats in Tonga, a settlement 40 miles west of Malakal. Led by Peter Gatdet, a defected army commander under European Union and UN sanctions, the group previously rejected the CPA in its draft form, complaining they felt excluded from the process and that IGAD, which views dissident groups as internal problems to be resolved by either side, did not take them seriously.

Past peace agreements in South Sudan, such as an August 2014 pact, have been criticized by observers to the negotiations for leaving out stakeholders such as former detainees and political parties who are now expected to constitute part of the transitional coalition government. Currently, whether the excluded and discontented rebels will be pushed to resume full-scale conflict depends on many other factors on the ground, though the threat of UN and US sanctions still stands as a penalty for all potential spoilers of the accord.

In an effort to absolve the army of blame for the current violence, the government’s military spokesperson Philip Panyang Aguer has already called for the urgent deployment of IGAD ceasefire monitors in all counties. According to the new peace agreement, the existing IGAD Monitoring and Verification Mechanism—a regional team established after the signing of the January 2014 peace deal—will be transformed into a broader, more encompassing committee of monitors drawn from civil society, local political parties, the African Union, EU, US and IGAD.

In February 2014, IGAD dispatched advance monitoring teams, but violations of the January ceasefire continued in Unity State and six months into their mission, an IGAD monitor was captured by opposition forces in the northern town of Bentiu and later died of a heart attack. At that time Aguer, speaking on behalf of the government, rejected IGAD reports detailing truce violations and civilian abuses; for him to now call for ceasefire monitors could be seen as more of a tactic to malign the opposition as potential aggressors, rather than a gesture towards peace.

Aside from fears of clashes leading to a resurgence in widespread conflict, logistical hurdles also threaten effective implementation of the CPA. According to the peace deal, Juba, the capital, should become a demilitarized zone and South Sudan’s army retreat to the barracks for 30 days while foreign forces fighting on either side will be compelled to leave the country. In an effort to begin discussions towards this outcome, IGAD recently planned to host a three-day workshop in Ethiopia, however it had to be postponed due to problems with Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO).

The opposition reportedly requested IGAD to postpone the workshop until it had nominated representatives at the SPLA-IO’s National Liberation Council meeting on September 10. The delayed event was scheduled to occur this past weekend and bring 11 of Kiir’s representatives drawn from high police and military ranks into contact with adversaries including members of Machar’s security team. It remains to be seen if details related to the army’s facilities, the creation of demilitarized zones, and the size of forces to be deployed in Juba and three other towns can be worked out amicably.

After the ceasefire workshop, plans toward the formation of a 30-month transitional government within 90 days are expected to begin. In this arrangement, Kiir would remain president and Machar as his vice president, while the interim government will be composed of a power-sharing council of ministers with 30 representatives. Kiir’s ruling party is expected to hold the majority of 53% of places, while SPLA-IO will have 33%, former detainees 7%, and other minor political parties the remaining 7%. At local governance level in the warring states, however, SPLA-IO will hold the majority of 53%, while Kiir’s ruling party will have 33%.

This shared arrangement has not been received favorably by all actors. After facing considerable pressure, Kiir signed, but he still sees the CPA as only a “roadmap for regime change.” While Machar was a willing signatory he didn’t see the pact as bringing the change the rebels wanted, but a return to the status quo. Prior to signing, some military officials and local Dinka leaders had criticized Kiir for compromising with Machar, who is a member of the Nuer community, too much. Kiir has nonetheless since warned his generals against conducting attacks, with the threat of disciplinary action for non-compliance. The president has also met with representatives from the Dinka Council of Elders (JCE), which opposes the SPLA-IO’s proposed dominance in local administrative affairs in the conflict hotspots of Upper Nile State, as well as Unity and Jonglei states. The Dinka are against control by a Nuer-majority movement, and JCE and Kiir see the demilitarization of Juba as an attempt to erode state sovereignty.

Questions of self-rule and power are so deeply at the heart of the CPA and the conflict itself, some observers fear both Kiir and Machar might face internal revolt within their respective movements if they continue to support the terms of the deal. Kiir and Machar will face a considerable task to convince their forces and dissident factions not to take up arms against each other and most critically, against a deal some describe as South Sudan’s last chance for peace.

Tendai Marima is an independent postdoctoral researcher and freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. @i_amten.