South Sudan's unity government: one option, too much risk

The fratricidal war in the country has left more than 400,000 dead and five million displaced
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, right, and Riek Machar, left, greet each other after the swearing-in ceremony in Juba, South Sudan, on 22 February 2020

PHOTO/AP  -   South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, right, and Riek Machar, left, greet each other after the swearing-in ceremony in Juba, South Sudan, on 22 February 2020

On 22 February, just as the deadline was approaching, the two leaders - and eternal enemies - of South Sudan, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, agreed to form a transitional government of national unity. This was already the third attempt - since the signing of the 2018 peace agreement - to achieve the end of a bloody fratricidal war that, after six years, has left more than 400,000 dead, five million defenceless people fleeing their homes to live in and out of their borders, and the majority of the population - six million South Sudanese - in conditions of extreme poverty and insufferable famine, according to the United Nations (UN).

But this time, international pressure - led by the UN, the African Union, the regional IGAD initiative and the so-called Troika (Great Britain, the United States and Norway), together with the mediation of Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia - has managed to break the constant struggle for power and control of resources between President Kiir and the now reinstated Vice-President Machar. A political and violent struggle -also personal- that both have been engaged in since national independence in 2011, regardless of the enormous human drama they have caused: “Think of your people, respect your people -UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres demanded in early February in Ethiopia- you do not have the right to continue the confrontation when your people are suffering so much”.

Nevertheless, without rejecting the constitution of this obligatory “conciliation” government, many complex challenges remain, almost as many as the dangers that this initiative entails. There are still deep wounds to be healed - political, economic and social - in order to overcome a conflict that broke out in December 2013. At the time, the two highest national authorities: Salva Kiir - of the Dinka ethnic group - and Riek Machar - leader of the Nuer - demonstrated once again that violence was their only recourse to resolve their differences. President Kiir accused Vice-President Machar of leading a coup d'état and, as a direct consequence, armed struggle and ethnic rivalry broke out in Juba. Soon, the brawl in the capital spread with extreme virulence throughout the territory, especially - and not by chance - through the northern and oil states of Southern Sudan: Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity. In the face of the violent collapse of the world's youngest and poorest country, all international initiatives failed in their attempt to stop the clashes between the former rebel Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLPA/M) - now reconverted into the South Sudanese Army - and the forces loyal to Machar, called the SPLA/M in Opposition (SPLA-IO).


The 2018 agreement: an imperfect consensus for peace

Finally, in September 2018, Kiir and Machar signed their twelfth pact to pacify the country: the Revitalized Agreement for Conflict Resolution in the Republic of South Sudan. In Addis Ababa, and under the premise of an immediate cessation of hostilities, they committed to form a transitional government within eight months, which was to lead the country to democratic elections within three years. In addition, and as preconditions for restoring joint governance, they agreed to create a national army - preceded by the billeting and training of all rebel forces, or their reintegration into society - and to resolve the internal delimitation of Southern Sudan: an administrative division that Riek Machar, in order to guarantee the supremacy of his Dinka ethnic group throughout the sovereign territory, had divided into 32 federal states, ten of which existed after independence in 2011. Finally, the protection of both leaders in Juba was to be provided by a joint force, a fact that shows their mutual distrust.

Despite the agreement, the deep divisions between the two postponed the constitution of the government for a lengthy year, with the administrative delimitation of the territory becoming the main stumbling block in the negotiations. It was not until February 16 that Salva Kiir gave in to the demands of the political and armed opposition to return to the ten states, but it included the creation of three “administrative zones” in the north of the country, which came under fire from Machar's supporters. Of these, the most controversial was the Ruweng oil region, claimed by the Dinka and Nuer, whose oil wealth - the foundation of endemic state corruption - provides most of the financial income to Southern Sudan's depleted coffers. Now the unevenly constituted government - 34 ministers: 20 from Kiir's SLPA/M, nine from Machar's SLPA/M-IO, and five from other opposition parties - has decided to postpone this thorny issue which, if not resolved quickly, could lead to the early resumption of conflict. For the time being, they have not yet appointed the local authorities, nor have they decided who will finally govern the Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity oil states. 

On the ground, security remains absent in much of the territory, and armed groups - some outside the control of national leaders - directly threaten the pursuit of a peaceful political process, as does widespread and escalating inter-communal violence. To achieve this, there is an urgent need to address the integration of Kiir's government forces and Machar's rebel militias into a single national army (83,000 troops) within eight months: a complex challenge after so many years of killing each other and - according to a recent UN report - mercilessly massacring a defenceless population, recruiting child soldiers or raping women and girls. 

Soldados de las Fuerzas de Defensa Popular del Sur de Sudán (SSPDF), la Alianza de Oposición del Sur de Sudán (SSOA) y el Movimiento de Liberación Popular del Sudán en la Oposición (SPLM-IO) se reúnen en el lugar de entrenamiento de la fuerza conjunta
REUTERS/ANDREEA CAMPEANU - Soldiers from the Southern Sudan People's Defence Forces (SSPDF), the Southern Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the Opposition (SPLM-IO) meet at the joint force training site

However, the 2018 agreement, unlike previous ones, does not have sufficient accountability mechanisms for all these criminals, nor does it have clear provisions for disarmament or a strong programme for the demobilisation of the militias. As a result of all these shortcomings, there is currently no “road map” to silence the weapons that, despite the 2018 UN embargo, continue to flow into the country unchecked; and the only thing the two national leaders have agreed to is the deployment of thousands of SPLM soldiers in the capital Juba to safeguard their own integrity. 

Finally, and as the most complex objective of the whole process, the unity government has to organise free and democratic elections sixty days before the end of the three-year transition period. Millions of South Sudanese, who have never enjoyed the slightest hint of good governance and social reconciliation, with very low levels of education and living in abject poverty, even though they live on huge oil reserves, must participate in this call. Moreover, there is no civil society structure - and no diaspora ready and willing to cooperate - that can challenge the dominant and despotic powers that have abused the country since long before its independence. 

Yet, in such a short time, it is extremely difficult to organise a joint and effective security sector, to consolidate state institutions and a federal regime; and, at the same time, to organise a peaceful and reliable electoral process. Undoubtedly, international cooperation - provided that the will of national leaders is present - will be decisive in achieving this.

Un personal médico atiende a un niño desnutrido en un hospital de Médicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) en un campo de desplazados internos dentro de la base de la ONU en Malakal
REUTERS/ANDREEA CAMPEANU - Medical staff treat a malnourished child at a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in an IDP camp inside the UN base in Malakal
The uncertain future of Southern Sudan

The new government of national unity has begun its work, but the challenges it faces are too many and undeniable risks to peace, especially since total impunity is still widespread throughout the country. To hope that President Kiir and Vice-President Machar - two rebels turned violent political leaders - can lead a massive national transformation is asking too much of the South Sudanese population. However, and unfortunately, there is no other option. 

Therefore, it is now time to reinforce cooperation - among other measures, with the presence of a strong international peace enforcement force - and pressure from all external actors; and under the constant threat of economic and even criminal sanctions, and without self-serving interference from neighbouring countries. Only in this way can the entire international community become the true and necessary guarantor of national peace. If this opportunity is missed, there will only be total anarchy and millions of lives destroyed: an appalling situation for all those who, after national independence in 2011, imagined a stable and prosperous future for Southern Sudan.

Jesús Díez Alcalde, colonel and analyst