South Sudan: Buying off elites to stop fighting won’t work. Here’s what might
Offering warring elites rewards to lay down arms hasn’t worked. The profits of conflict must be removed and the focus shifted to the ground level.
Mediators trying to end South Sudan’s deadly ongoing conflict have typically attempted to do so by “buying peace”. As the death toll rises and the humanitarian situation deteriorates, external diplomats have have essentially tried to get warring parties to stop fighting by offering them a share of the national pie. A core part of their approach has been to come up with incentives to make peace seem more attractive than war.
In August 2015, for instance, the regional body IGAD mediated a peace deal that set out a power-sharing compromise between President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. As part of the deal, the latter agreed to cease hostilities and fill the role of vice-president.
Machar had previously held this position at independence in July 2011. He lasted until July 2013, when internal government tensions escalated into civil war. Following 20 months of fighting and the signing of the 2015 peace agreement, Machar returned to his old office in April 2016. But things fell apart again in July 2016 when fighting restarted.
Since then, more rebel groups have joined the opposition, and the conflict has evolved and spread. According to UN estimates, tens of thousands people have been killed, around 2 million have been displaced, and 7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The level of destruction continues to rise, while economic and political crises as well as mass corruption worsen.
In a bid to end this bloodshed, mediators are once again trying to bring warring parties to the table. They are largely relying on similar tactics of trying to appease military leaders and offer them rewards to cease hostilities. Recent experience, however, should have exposed to them the unsustainability of trying to “buy peace”.
Why buying peace does not work
The strategy of buying peace can be appealing to mediators in that it offers a relatively straightforward, though not necessarily easy, path to securing a deal in the short-term. But there are several reasons such agreements inevitably fall apart.
To begin with, buying off violent elites with government posts simply ignores the root causes of the conflict as well as the concerns of ordinary people.
Take the South Sudan Democratic Movement, for instance. Many of this rebel group’s soldiers were from the Shilluk community and were motivated to join the rebels in fighting the government because of land disputes they had faced in the Upper Nile. In 2013, the militia’s leader Johnson Olony agreed to end hostilities following negotiations. In return, Olony, and a number of his men, were awarded positions in the military and government.
But the disagreements over land were not addressed. Meanwhile, tensions between Olony and other parties in government grew. In April 2015, the militia leader became a rebel once more, remobilising supporters whose initial grievances had never been dealt with.
Stopping war by placating military leaders also means that notions of justice and accountability are often dismissed. When Kiir and Machar agreed to become ruling partners again in April 2016, for example, the brutal violence that impacted countless people in the previous two years was largely swept under the carpet. In the interests of a quick peace, victims’ wounds were not healed. Instead, they remained raw and re-opened in the form of inter-ethnic revenge attacks when conflict restarted a few months later.
The culture of international mediators essentially begging South Sudan’s powerful elite to end the suffering of their own people by negotiating also has a related outcome. It may be a less tangible effect, but this approach effectively shifts the responsibility for the population’s well-being onto the shoulders of external parties.
Another weakness of buying peace is that it alters the incentives of potential rebels who understand the game and that its benefits only last while there is still money to go around. Warmongers may increase their demands and act in a way that increases their potential pay out, even while the resources available shrink.
David Yau Yau, for example, has played the system with great skill. He first rebelled in 2010 after losing elections to be an MP in Jonglei state. A year later, he agreed to talks and was made a major-general in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In 2012, Yau Yau rebelled again, before being persuaded to lay down arms in 2014. This time he was made a Lieutenant-General, one rank higher than before, and Deputy Minister of Defence.
Ultimately, buying peace by offering rewards to warring elites is doomed to fail. It is anathema to democracy and allows dictatorship. It benefits only those at the top and, unless every power-broker is satisfied, which is impossible, it only encourages factions to split to demand what they believe they are due. The SPLM-in-Opposition’s (SPLM-IO) splintering in July 2016, for instance, was partly motivated by a feeling among leaders such as Taban Deng and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth that they should have been offered more and could get more by defecting.
Emptying the fuel tanks
Fortunately, there is an alternative to buying peace, which we can call “emptying the fuel tanks”. That’s to say, rather than making peace more attractive than war by offering elites shiny incentives, mediators can instead make peace seem more attractive by actively removing the rewards of war.
This may seem more difficult and require more courage in the short-term. But it is also cheaper and does not require giving up demands for justice and accountability. More to the point though, if lasting peace is the goal, it is the only approach that can actually work.
Instead of trying to forge cushy power-sharing agreements, mediators should begin by identifying from where the money funding the war is coming. Investigators for the UN Panel of Experts, The Sentry, Global Witness, The Small Arms Survey, and Conflict Armament Research and more have all looked into this. They have examined the financing channels used by the government and opposition to wage war and tried to uncover those who are profiting from South Sudan’s conflict.
The priority should be to monitor these entities and to work out the necessary collective actions needed to stop them. There needs to be a greater focus on both South Sudan’s conflict entrepreneurs and the international firms, such as the Qatar National Bank, that allegedly facilitate them.
At the same time, mediators should maintain the threat of an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans against warring elites and their collaborators. Sanctions have already been employed, but to be fully effective and threatening to the interests of those prolonging the war, they must be applied in a genuinely concerted and comprehensive manner that reflects the complexity and scope of the conflict.
Earlier this month, IGAD’s special envoy to South Sudan suggested more extensive measures could be taken against those found violating the ceasefire. This approach can be ramped up. Last month, the US recently imposed a largely symbolic arms ban on South Sudan, but neighbouring countries could vow to actually enforce it. Furthermore, mediators could condition financial support on progress towards achieving meaningful peace.
Finally, it is crucial that to shift the focus away from elite contestation and onto grievances, inequalities and violence at the ground level. Justice and accountability for the many victims of the war will be crucial for long-term stability. The region should make it clear that it stands, first and foremost, with the people of South Sudan and address perceived discrimination and injustices between and within communities.
As things stand, there is little prospect of a meaningful peace treaty being signed. But if different and concerted forms of pressure were exerted on those benefiting from conflict and obstructing negotiations, the warring parties’ calculations could finally change. The strategy of buying peace has not and cannot work. It is only when the financial resources and benefits of fighting dry up that we might finally move a step closer towards building a meaningful and sustainable peace.