As the IGAD led mediation talks resume in Addis Ababa, South Sudan’s political future looks uncertain. Despite the signing of a ceasefire, fighting continues in three of the most volatile and strategic states. International Crisis Group and the UN estimates that the violence has claimed at least 10,000 civilians and left more than 800,000 displaced since mid-December.
Two months into the crisis, neither diplomatic pressure nor mediation talks have had an impact in restraining the warring parties. Rather than strive for a political solution, the government of South Sudan seems to have made the calculation that a military advantage over the rebels and a political purge of dissenters from within the party is the best solution for resolving the conflict.
As a precondition for ending the fighting, rebels have demanded a withdrawal of foreign military forces siding with the government and the release of four remaining political detainees, amongst them, the SPLM’s former Secretary General. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has taken a defiant stance against the opposition mediators, responding by affirming foreign military presence, laying treason charges on senior SPLM officials he accused of orchestrating an alleged coup and unilaterally terminating their membership from the ruling party – this included publicly announcing their positions as vacant.
As things stand, the mediation talks are a mere side show of political posturing. Neither side has the urgency and will to commit to a genuine mutual solution. The most likely scenario is of a protracted and sporadic armed conflict, mass killings along ethnic lines and displacements as rebel groups fight to exert control and recapture lost territory. It is foreseeable that territorial control will change hands many times between Government and rebel forces.
The unfortunate consequence of this will be that much time and resource will have been spent trying to squash rebels at the expense of nation building and reconciliation. While South Sudan’s Government has relied on foreign troops to quell rebel forces and protect strategic infrastructure, it has been unable to protect and feed its own civilians.
That South Sudan’s political landscape allows for no public criticism implies the existence of discontented citizens lacking alternative platforms to vent their frustrations – this is likely to lead to increased mobilization, militarization and wider conflict. Even worse, the SPLA is unable to control fractures within its military and police force. In short, South Sudan has entered a dangerous phase of uncertainty and instability that poses severe risk to its citizens and neighbours.
With the worsening humanitarian situation, it is imperative to speed up the peace talks by providing leverage for political commitment to the resolution of the conflict. The Addis Ababa Peace Agreement between Southern Sudan and Sudan and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 are practical examples of previous political commitment to the resolution of conflict in which South Sudanese politicians participated.
Uncertainty about the objectivity of the IGAD mediation and its lack of a cohesive voice is arguably the most serious obstacle hampering positive mediation outcomes. One of the points blocking progress thus far has been the demand for the withdrawal of Ugandan forces by the rebels, Ethiopia, and the United States. Uganda, an influential member of the regional grouping, intervened militarily by deploying its army to prop up Kiir’s embattled Government. Ethiopia, also an influential IGAD member currently hosting the mediation talks in Addis Ababa, has publicly echoed calls by the rebel group for Uganda to withdraw its forces. Meanwhile, Uganda maintains its troops will remain in South Sudan for as long as they are needed by Kiir’s Government. With the regional body taking two opposing stances – it is highly unlikely that a divided IGAD will be able to broker a promising negotiated settlement.
Given South Sudan’s ongoing tensions with Sudan – which to a large extent distracted attention from the country’s internal leadership squabbles, and, Khartoum and Uganda’s history of proxy war, Uganda’s over engagement in South Sudan’s domestic politics could be a precursor for renewed conflict with Khartoum. Second, as long as Kiir enjoys military support from Uganda, it is unlikely that he will engage meaningfully in the mediation talks. President Museveni’s strong alliance with the current order jeopardizes a long term political solution at the expense of short term illusive stability that seeks to shore up an embattled leader in Salva Kiir. At the same time, it is reinforcing regional rivalries and political rigidities that fomented the conflict in the first place in a country where the culture of violence is endemic.
As the international community weighs options for successful mediation in South Sudan, there will be three key critical points to consider:
First, more pressure from all quarters should be brought to bear on Uganda to limit its selective military engagement in South Sudan and to withdraw its armed forces altogether. A number of countries — amongst them the Troika (the US, UK and Norway) – all of which were instrumental in negotiating the CPA, are increasingly voicing concerns over Uganda’s counter-productive intervention and have publicly urged for its troops withdrawal. If there is a need for military reinforcement, then it should be from a neutral force, and there is already the United Nations Mission for South Sudan (UNMISS) that could act as a neutral broker.
Second, IGAD will need to speak with one voice if there is to be an impact in compelling the key disputants to commit to a long term political solution. In particular, Ethiopia and Kenya should take the lead and play complimentary roles since both have had a positive historical stake towards South Sudan. Apart from hosting the current mediations, Ethiopia hosted the 1972 Addis Ababa talks which ended the first civil war between Sudan government and Southern Sudan rebel movement through the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement.
Kenya, on the other hand, hosted and brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 which ended the second civil war and ushered in Southern Sudan as a semi-autonomous self governing entity. By taking in 7 of the 11 political detainees from South Sudan and releasing them to attend mediation talks in Addis, Kenya has shown it is a neutral, reliable and impartial mediator, who can be trusted by both sides. In the long term both Kenya and Ethiopia are well placed in ensuring the objectives of the CPA and current mediation are fulfilled.
Third, although South Sudan is scheduled to have elections in 2015, pressure should not be simply be around elections. While important, elections tend to obscure the difficult task of state building which is less eventful and is itself a painstaking process requiring long term commitment. Elections are rarely the solution when national goals are not supported by (at a minimum) functioning complimentary political and military structures. One major reason Kenya flared up after its 2007 election was the opposition’s lack of confidence in the judiciary. While at least judicial institutions were functioning in Kenya (albeit without independence), for South Sudan the judiciary is a non-starter without even the capacity to try treason charges. Furthermore, its prosecution model is centralized, yet the political system is decentralized, meaning there are no prosecutors at the county level to independently carry out prosecutions. Overall, the Judiciary in South Sudan has little functional capacity to adjudicate political disputes.
South Sudan’s military and police are also in urgent need of reform. If the goal is to promote political stability and accountability, then beyond elections, efforts should be directed at establishing a framework that prioritizes; reconciliation, harmonization and restructuring of South Sudan’s state structures. Just like Kenya in 2008 where the Kofi Annan mediation and international experts were instrumental in helping Kenya restructure its state institutions, similarly, South Sudan will need international expertise to engineer and balance its restructuring process. This is a disguised form of trusteeship.
Since South Sudan’s future hinges on transforming the existing political order and diffusing current political tension, ideally the best option would be for neither Salva Kiir nor Riek Machar to contest the next elections. A prosperous and peaceful South Sudan is feasible, but this will not happen organically, and with political will lacking, it is up to the international community, South Sudanese, Friends of South Sudan, together with its civil society, local faith groups and diaspora to up continuous pressure for this to be realized.
Atieno Oduor worked in South Sudan implementing governance programs. She is currently based in DC working as an Independent Governance Consultant.