In South Sudan, an Insufficient Peace Deal

3 MINS READSep 1, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
South Sudan: Why A Recent Peace Deal Is Not Enough
(SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images)
A South Sudanese government soldier is pictured in Pageri, South Sudan, on Aug. 20.

South Sudan's latest peace agreement already appears to be falling apart. Expectations were high that the deal between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit's government and rebel groups aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar would de-escalate the country's civil war. But violence continued in several regions after the cease-fire began at midnight on Aug. 29. Combined with several weak provisions in the deal, initial indicators suggest that lasting security will be difficult to achieve with the peace agreement alone.

Despite Kiir's hesitation, diplomatic pressure from the United States, Uganda and other African leaders eventually led to a negotiated peace agreement that was signed Aug. 26. The deal entails not only a cessation of hostilities, but also the eventual formation of a transitional government that would reinstate Machar as vice president. It also aims to disarm non-state armed groups and requires foreign forces supporting either of the warring parties to withdraw.

South Sudan's armed opposition currently consists of a large number of former military units, some not necessarily under Machar's direct control. All of the units defected during the crisis in Sudan in December 2013. Later on, different local and ethnic militias joined the rebellion. Reintegrating former military units may be plausible, albeit difficult, and the embedded risks of future mutinies will persist given the units' deep mistrust of the government and fickle self-interest. Demobilizing the ethnically motivated militia will be even harder. Peacekeeping forces in South Sudan currently do not have the capabilities to enforce a complete demobilization. Consequently, armed non-state groups will continue to exist in the country's rural areas even if the peace deal holds. 

The U.S. government, for all its pressure on Kiir to approve the agreement, still wants to impose a U.N.-enforced arms embargo on South Sudan, revealing the United States' lack of confidence in the deal's achievements. Little progress toward peace and political cooperation in Juba has frustrated Washington, especially since it was a major supporter of South Sudan's independence. Despite its political efforts, the United States could do little to mediate the conflict when power, scarce resources and ethnic rivalries kept South Sudan divided. Imposing an arms embargo risks upsetting Washington's already strained relationship with Kiir's administration, but in the end, Kiir depends on the West to finance the day-to-day operation of his government and security forces.

Uganda, which has been directly supporting Kiir's government by deploying its military, has similar doubts about the success of the peace agreement but nonetheless stands by Kiir. Under the agreement, Ugandan forces have to withdraw from South Sudan within 45 days of its signing. Still, Ugandan military leaders have indicated that they reserve the option of returning to South Sudan if Juba is threatened again. Fighter aircraft and ground forces could be redeployed quickly to halt any serious attempt by rebel forces to march on the capital. Meanwhile, the peace agreement also allows Ugandan forces to operate in South Sudan's Western Equatoria State, where they had already been involved in operations against the Lord's Resistance Army.

So far, the cease-fire has not been terribly effective. Fighting has been reported across different conflict areas, including the oil-producing Unity State and Upper Nile State. For now, local fighting has not escalated into larger offensives, both a positive and negative aspect of the conflict. Armed groups are localized and loyal to warlord generals; political forces in Juba cannot control these disparate militias, making it difficult to extinguish the conflict in remote areas. At the same time, the militias do not coordinate across regional sectors, preventing a large-scale conflict from breaking out. As a result, there may be half a dozen localized conflicts against South Sudanese government forces, but not a single consolidated battlespace. Still, the risk of offensives being conducted in Upper Nile State, where government forces still protect oil-producing facilities, cannot be ruled out. In Unity State, where oil production has been shut down, bringing oil fields back online will depend on the effectiveness of plans to disarm and demobilize rebel groups, which could be a slow and troubled process.

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