As the number of people killed and displaced by South Sudan’s bloody, month-long civil conflict continues to rise, negotiations taking place in Addis Ababa have inevitably focused on requirements for a ceasefire. An agreement came on 23 January, when negotiators representing the President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed a deal outlining these requirements along with commitments to end the brutal attacks on civilians carried out by both sides since the start of the crisis.
While welcome, the readiness of the protagonists to actually stop the fighting remains deeply uncertain. Developments on the ground suggest South Sudan’s leaders remain committed to seeking military advantages to improve political power in negotiations. Just before the agreement, news emerged that government troops retook the town of Malakal in oil-producing Upper Nile State, which opposition forces quickly denied. Human rights bodies recently uncovered evidence of targeted, ethnically-based attacks, killings and sexual violence committed by the SPLA (the national army) and rebel forces.
The conflict has travelled far from its origins in mid-December: the fighting that broke out late last year between troops in the capital spread rapidly to volatile locations in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, triggering defections in the SPLA, intersecting with local political battles and inflaming old civil war grievances. Just over a month on, it is not clear how the parties will be able to enforce a ceasefire once it is agreed, and there are concerns over the effectiveness and legitimacy of a ceasefire monitoring mechanism. What’s more, the crisis will not be solved by an agreement that lacks political commitment and sufficiently broad buy-in. Lessons from underlying weaknesses of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement should not be forgotten in this instance – when exclusive deals were brokered in Kenya between Juba and Khartoum.
Ultimately, a sustainable solution to the crisis will only come through an inclusive political process that engages South Sudanese communities and deals with the underlying causes of unrest. A political agreement between leaders that does not address people’s grievances, nor clearly invite citizens across the country to play their part in finding long term solutions, will prove a poor start in the search for sustainable peace. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and international partners must quickly take steps to expand participation in the mediation process –engaging representatives from South Sudanese communities, the diaspora and religious communities, and making sure the process is seen, heard and active across the states of South Sudan.
The current crisis has its roots in wide-ranging failures of governance, security provision and reform, justice and reconciliation in South Sudan. If the country is to move forward there needs to be a process that is ready and willing to embrace these issues and address these drivers of the crisis. Core components of an expanded, participatory peace process should include the following:
1. A national political dialogue, focused on re-establishing democratic values, constitutionalism and political accountability in the post-crisis period.
The escalation of political tensions between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar over 2013 exposed the fragility of South Sudan’s nascent democracy and serious factionalism within governing institutions. It came amid growing concerns about a closing of political space in South Sudan fuelled by, among other things, repeated attacks on freedom of speech and assembly.
Re-establishing a social contract between South Sudanese people and the state should start now, with the inclusion of an expanded range of voices in Addis Ababa. In the post-crisis period, it should translate into a genuinely national process of political debate on questions of democratic and institutional reform, security services accountability, access to justice, and an expanded bill of rights. This should feed into a revised national constitution in which all South Sudanese have a stake, before potentially divisive elections emerge on the table.
2. A changed security sector reform agenda.
The speed at which the SPLA fragmented from mid-December underscored the depth of division within the national army and weaknesses in the command and control structures. The policy operated by the SPLM leadership of absorbing rebel militia into the SPLA intact, for example, needs urgent review. There have been widespread reports of security services committing grievous violence against civilians, continuing a post-independence cycle of abuse. The security services also lack any transparent mechanism for accountability and oversight. So reform of the security services in general, focused on improving their responsiveness to the needs of South Sudan’s communities, will be an essential element of an expanded mediation agenda.
3. Justice for serious abuses, leading to national truth and reconciliation.
The memory of atrocities committed during the second phase of the 1983-2005 civil war – when intra-South Sudan fighting was at its worst – still runs high in the country, and has directly contributed to the current escalation and its ethnic dimensions. Ensuring that the next chapter of South Sudan’s history is not beholden to impunity means introducing a robust, credible justice process that deals with the offending abuses. In this, the African Union’s decision to establish a commission of enquiry to investigate human rights violations is welcome. As has been argued compellingly elsewhere, a hybrid court system of the sort adopted in the wake of Sierra Leone’s civil war may provide a useful example of a nationally-led justice process when the fighting stops.
A national process of reconciliation and healing will be integral to finding a pathway ahead. The history of violence in South Sudan has inflicted deep wounds on the population, which have been allowed to fester in the absence of meaningful reconciliation since the signing of the CPA in 2005. The current crisis has re-opened painful memories of the past and inflicted new trauma among South Sudanese, which will need to be aired and urgently addressed. The past puts strong demands on the approach and structure of a necessary (national) mediation process. Failing to observe the lessons from the recent past – by supporting another, narrow elite settlement – will not provide the long term stability the people of South Sudan are so desperate for. It will come at the expense of an improved future for the millions of South Sudanese who, as ever, suffer the most.
Paul Murphy is Saferworld’s executive director and has spent considerable time working in South Sudan.