Swearing in Machar

Is This the Last Chance for Peace in South Sudan? Q&A with Daisaku Higashi

The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, left, swears in Riek Machar as the first Vice President of South Sudan earlier this year. (AP Photo/Charles Atiki Lomodong )

Following a 2018 peace agreement between President Salva Kiir, former vice president Reik Machar, and other opposition groups, a transitional government was formed in South Sudan that this year made headway in realizing the terms of the agreement. Significant challenges remain, however, and according to Daisaku Higashi, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, “this may be the last chance for South Sudan to create sustainable peace.”

As part of the research for his recently published book in Japanese, Civil Wars and Mediation: How Can We End the Civil Wars?, Dr. Higashi interviewed leaders and key mediators in South Sudan. He spoke with Samir Ashraf, editor of the Global Observatory, on the state of the peace process in South Sudan, and the impact that the political transition in Sudan is having on its neighbor.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are the major challenges to advancing the peace process in South Sudan?

Dr. Higashi: According to the peace agreement, South Sudan will hold national elections 36 months after the formation of its transitional government. There are four key challenges for sustainable peace in this transitional period.

The first is that the unification of armed forces will continue to be challenging. It is important for the international community to realize that it will probably take time to complete this process. As long as South Sudan demonstrates progress, it is important for the international community to support this security sector reform, including with some funding. It is also crucial for South Sudan to keep its commitment by using some oil revenue to achieve this goal.

The second challenge relates to oil. South Sudan used to pump about 350,000 barrels of oil a day before the war. Currently, it produces about 180,000 barrels, but could reach 500,000 if secure conditions remain. The question is how South Sudan can establish a transparent mechanism for the use of oil revenue. To this end, it is vital to obtain the support of international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to create a transparent mechanism.

The third is the increase in traditional intercommunal fighting, especially around natural resources like cows and water. It is critical to contain these conflicts. I propose that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan hire anthropologists who have rich knowledge and expertise about the traditional conflict resolution mechanism (TCRM) in South Sudan as short-term consultants and have them do field work and create specific recommendations to address these communal conflicts, possibly empowering TCRM. While I am not an anthropologist, but an international relations scholar, I am convinced that collaboration with these context-specific experts will be very important for the UN.

Lastly, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a grave threat for people in South Sudan. Three UN agencies—the Food and Agriculture Organizaion, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme—have warned that 6.5 million South Sudanese, more than half of the population, are facing severe food shortages in the hunger season between May and July. It is vital for the international community to keep monitoring the situation in conflict-affected countries like South Sudan and to support the implementation of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire to fight COVID-19. It is time for the leadership of South Sudan—as well as Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other countries at war across the world—to lay down weapons and concentrate on protecting people from the pandemic and the calamity of wars.

Given all these factors, and especially the compounding element of COVID-19, this may be the last chance for South Sudan to create sustainable peace.

South Sudan established a new cabinet as part of the transitional government. How did the cabinet come to fruition?

Higashi: The cabinet’s formation was a component of the September 2018 peace agreement that outlined the terms for a transitional government, which was made between the government of South Sudan led by President Kiir, and major opposition groups, including one led by Riek Machar, the former first vice president.

The key contents of the 2018 agreement were the establishment of the transitional government with 35 cabinet members—20 appointed by President Kiir, 9 by Machar, and six appointed by other groups, security sector reform—meaning all armed forces under President Kiir, Machar, and other groups would be unified into one government force,  and a provision that the transitional government will hold national elections in three years. The agreement also stipulated that the transitional government be formed within eight months. This meant that the transitional government was supposed to be created in May 2019. But it was postponed twice, mainly because the unification of forces has been so difficult.

The 2018 agreement was the result of a revitalized peace process initiated by governments part of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), like Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya, at the end of 2017. After serious and hard negotiations to find agreement, most of the conflicting parties signed the 2018 agreement, which had a great impact in reducing fighting between the government and opposition forces.

After two postponements, what made it possible for the new transitional government to be established this time?

Higashi: There were two major obstacles to establishing the transitional government. The first, as I mentioned, was the difficulty of merging the different armed forces. The second was to decide the number of states within South Sudan. When South Sudan was established, it had 10 states. However, President Kiir introduced 28 states in October 2015, then expanded it to 32 states in January 2017. Former Vice President Machar and his faction strongly criticized having 32 states, claiming that it was designed to benefit President Kiir’s supporters, and demanded the creation of 21 states.

Machar continued to insist that he would not join the interim government unless the number of states was agreed. Close to the February 22, 2020 deadline for creating the interim government, IGAD proposed creating 23 states or returning to the original 10. On February 15, 2020, President Kiir surprisingly accepted to return to 10 states during the transitional period, firing 32 governors. This decision created the momentum to establish the transitional government as Machar decided to return to Juba as the first vice president. At the same time, the unification of forces is proceeding.

What are the major differences between the 2015 peace agreement, which collapsed within a year, and the 2018 agreement?

Higashi: One of the biggest differences is that Sudan, which has supported Vice President Machar, and Uganda, which has supported President Kiir, made a real and serious commitment to convincing both sides to sign the 2018 peace agreement. That was not the case for the 2015 agreement.

Following the 2018 peace agreement, I interviewed top officials in the government, IGAD, and the UN in Juba in 2019, and found that the period after the revitalized peace negotiation was launched at the end of 2017 was very difficult. Reflecting the failure of the 2015 peace agreement, IGAD invited more than 20 groups including the representatives of the South Sudan government, Machar’s faction, other opposition groups, civil society, youth, and women to Addis Ababa to create an inclusive framework for the negotiation.

This was an important step that a wide range of groups from South Sudan were involved in the negotiations and voiced their concerns. However, these meetings were not able to produce a peace agreement. Then Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia asked President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to mediate a meeting between President Kiir and Machar. Bashir then requested President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to come to Khartoum and push President Kiir to make an agreement.

Due to the collaboration between Bashir and Museveni, an agreement was brokered between Kiir and Machar. IGAD then approached other groups and almost all factions signed the comprehensive agreement in September 2018. This strong commitment by Sudan and Uganda is, I believe, a critical factor in advancing the peace process in South Sudan. It is also encouraging that since the collapse of the Bashir regime, the transitional government of Sudan continues to support the peace process in South Sudan.

The negotiation process above demonstrates that inclusivity during peace negotiations needs to be flexible, depending on its nature—something I have detailed before.

How will the peace process in South Sudan be impacted by the new UN political mission in Sudan?

Higashi: The UN Security Council established the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan in January 2021 to assist the democratization of Sudan, and to monitor and verify possible ceasefires focusing on the Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and Darfur regions.

On the one hand, the establishment of the new mission is positively impacting the ongoing political transition of Sudan to a more democratic, inclusive, and accountable state. Many experts believe this transition is having positive impacts on South Sudan’s peace process.

On the other hand, if the international community and UN fail to contain the rise of insurgency in Sudan due to the reduction of peacekeepers in the UN-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID)—which will be eventually replaced by the new political mission—it may have substantial impacts on destabilizing South Sudan. The next few years will be a critical for peace in both Sudan and South Sudan.