South Sudan: What Options Remain?

Displaced people in a UN protection of civilians site. Wau, South Sudan, April 20, 2017. (Nektarios Markogiannis/UN Media)

Six years after South Sudan’s independence was celebrated by the United Nations and African Union in Juba, the newest UN member state is in ruins, its citizens dependent on outside assistance for succor and limited safety. The UNMISS peacekeeping mission in place since July 2011—with an annual cost of more than $1 billion a year—is unable to maintain peace.

AU-led negotiations have faltered, while UN camps intended to house soldiers and equipment have been overwhelmed by desperate South Sudanese seeking protection, shelter, food, and medical care—a 2014 Security Council resolution tasked UNMISS with protection of civilians, though former UN representative to the country Hilde F. Johnson said it had never been the UN’s intention to respond to the security needs of the South Sudanese in this manner.

The civil war between the militarized factions of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Rick Machar continues, with no end in sight. As former US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, has recently written, this is a tragic denouement, the product of longstanding conflict between ethnically based rival military clan groups, combined with political rivalries and operational misjudgments by key international actors at both the continental and international levels. Persistent tensions and uncertainties between Sudan and South Sudan as to their future relationship form the backdrop, adding to the sense that this has become a virtually insoluble conflict.


To appreciate the difficulties of finding solutions, it is useful to first explore the origins of the crisis. After 25 years of civil war between the north and south of Sudan, the decision to vote for the south’s independence sprang from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, arduously negotiated and then monitored over the ensuing six years. During this period it was widely believed that the main challenge facing the South Sudanese leadership would be opposition to independence from the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir.

The conflict was also seen through a political/religious lens, mainly between the Islamic North and Christian South. This view was supported by Christian political groups in the United States. The end goal was therefore seen as obtaining independence for South Sudan; a goal which supporters of the CPA claimed the agreement was intended to achieve from the outset.

Hope for a bright and peaceful future after independence was soon dashed. Since December 2013 the civil war between Kiir and Machar’s forces has killed 200,000 people, displaced two million more, and seen hundreds of thousands flee either into UN compounds, the bush, or across the border into Chad. Massive human rights violations are a daily occurrence. As reported by the Enough Project, many in the South Sudanese leadership have become wealthy and have even bought properties in Nairobi, Kenya, for their families. Fighting between the rival factions has turned what was originally a political conflict for power into an ethnic war.

Meanwhile, the UN Regional Protection Force, initially authorized in August 2016, is only just beginning to deploy. Negotiations led by AU High Representative Alpha Oumar Konare (former AU Chairperson and President of Mali) and the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission Chairperson Festus Mogae (former President of Botswana) have yet to show results. The National Dialogue Process launched by Kiir in December 2016 has selected a steering committee, but the opposition maintains the need for a genuine ceasefire, among other measures, as a prerequisite. Kiir’s commitment to a meaningful, legitimate dialogue process is also questionable.

UN Secretary General António Guterres continues to see the AU as in the lead on responding to the conflict. His new representative in the country, David Shearer, continues to meet with the government in Juba to try to limit the fighting, and Guterres has called repeatedly for a new political agreement and an end to fighting between the rival parties, most recently at an April donor pledging conference in Geneva. Unfortunately, the parties appear not to be interested in a negotiated outcome, but rather in fighting the civil war until one or another side wins.

How long can this go on? Does the UN have any options besides more Security Council resolutions and appeals to the various parties? Princeton Lyman, again, has proposed that the Council establish a UN transitional administration, as was done for Kosovo and East Timor, more than a decade ago. The difference here is that neither Kiir nor Machar are interested in such a process and the Council has no intention to force them to change their minds.

Under these circumstances, there are five potential scenarios for the future of South Sudan:

Continued Stalemate

The conflict continues indefinitely (perhaps for a decade) and the UN and AU continue their current policies, supported for the time being by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Under this scenario, millions of South Sudanese will become internally displaced or flee as refugees to Chad, Ethiopia, or beyond.

Regional Exhaustion

Leaders of other countries in the region become exhausted with the conflict and the current leadership in South Sudan. The growing refugee burden on neighbors and the spread of instability, among other factors, could see influential neighbors, particularly Uganda and Sudan, become more interested in resolving the violence than in gaining an advantage over the other. This could either lead to support being pulled from the current leadership, or a regional insistence that the government makes and keeps the peace.

International Pressure on Rival Factions

External parties impose a series of coercive but non-military tools that exert leverage on key decision-makers to compel them to end the conflict and to hold accountable those responsible for the violence. This would entail, for example, the imposition of an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions against influential political figures.

The Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which was envisioned by the August 2015 peace agreement, could be used to prosecute those most responsible for the crimes committed in the civil war. Many of these tools remain part of the international conversation on applying pressure on the main actors. However, current Security Council dynamics would likely preclude the establishment of an arms embargo and additional targeted sanctions, as they did in late 2016. Furthermore, although Kiir and Machar signed the August 2015 peace agreement and its vision of the hybrid court, progress has been slow in implementation, and prospects for its operationalization are problematic, even though the AU has reportedly drafted a statute for the court.

AU-led Transition

A recent suggestion by Professor Mahmoud Mamdani would entrust a regionally diverse committee of South Sudanese with executive functions to run the country for a transitional period under AU auspices. This could be an effective temporary solution, but also touches upon sensitive sovereignty concerns that might not be easily resolved.

National Dialogue

The process Kiir called for indirectly induces the parties to cease fighting and accept a new political dispensation. The process, however, currently remains stalled over issues of venue and inclusivity. The dialogue could be a constructive mechanism for change, but only if it can be held in a safe environment that allows for the participation of a wide array of political and civil society actors encompassing a range of views and if the government agrees to meaningfully consider the proposals made. Given its past behavior, it is questionable whether the government would have the political will to make this a reality.

Absent some unforeseen new initiative, or the fulfillment of those initiatives currently underway, any prospect of improving the lives of the South Sudanese in the foreseeable future unfortunately seems remote.