Who Will Bring Peace for the People of South Sudan?



Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kiir (center) . Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy



In the world’s newest nation, hope and joy have given way to sadness and distress. Four years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudanese people must once again endure a protracted conflict. Following a rift between President Salva Kirr and his fired ex-deputy Riek Machar in December 2013, violence erupted between South Sudan’s government forces loyal to the president and SPLA-In Opposition, a rebel militia supportive of Machar. 


While this nonsensical power struggle rages on, civilians bare the brunt of the conflict. Despite their commitment, both parties have failed to take meaningful action to prevent abuses, hold perpetrators into account, and to uphold the Responsibility to Protect, a state’s responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement. Human rights organizations have documented serious human rights violations committed by both parties to the conflict, including targeted killing, rape, recruitment of child soldiers, and systematic and widespread displacement. 


While South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis should merit international attention, individual regional leaders, the African Union, the UN Security Council, and the Office of the Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD) Special Envoys for South Sudan responsible for the mediation the process, have not taken concrete steps to end the conflict. Despite nine signed peace agreements, efforts to reach a deal have consistently failed due to a lack of political will from both sides as well as from neighboring countries who have vested interests in South Sudan. 


In an unfortunate move, the AU decided to delay the publication of the AU Commission of Inquiry detailing atrocity crimes committed since December 2013. Only very recently, did the UN Security Council finally impose targeted sanctions against the spoilers in the conflict. Yet it has avoided imposing a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan and to ensure prosecution of individuals responsible for human rights abuses. 


The real leverage needed to force parties to make concessions hasn’t been exerted due to competing tensions between regional actors, who have been covertly interfering in the conflict. Looking at the relationships between spoiler proxies and their patrons, the Enough Project’s Akshaya Kumar explains that South Sudan’s “predatory economic networks play a central role in the current civil war because much of the conflict is driven by elites attempting to re-negotiate their share of the politico-economic power balance through violence.” Regional powers and local elites have turned to client-patron relationships to fulfill their kleptocratic political agendas.            


The SPLA, led by President Kiir, has been able to rely on foreign backers. Uganda, a long-time rival of Sudan, has attempted to reinforce Kiir’s claim to power in order to undermine Khartoum’s influence. Another friend to the South Sudanese government is Ethiopia, a country whose porous border renders it imperative that a prolonged civil conflict in South Sudan be averted. To make things worse, the South Sudanese army has been entrusting much of their fighting to rebel groups, like the Bul Nuer in Unity state, to fight to the opposition.


SPLA-IO, led by Machar, is not going it alone either. Sudan, a country that emerged from partition with a meager distribution of the natural resources relative to South Sudan, would certainly welcome the opportunity to exert authority over South Sudanese policy, and therefore, find common cause with Machar’s ilk. Sudan might also back the opposition as a countermeasure to Ugandan intervention. According to the Institute for Security and Peace, “Eritrean operatives are covertly providing support to South Sudanese opposition forces” to renew their strategic partnership with Sudan.


Today, South Sudan has become more of a gladiator arena for power-hungry actors rather than a state governed by leaders who understand their responsibility to protect citizens. Most importantly, there has been devastating absence of accountability for the crimes committed by these actors at play. According to Political science professor Idean  Saleyhan, patrons who empower subsidiaries show restraint so as to prevent problems of adverse selection, agency slack, and public castigation. Yet, where there is little international reporting or oversight, and where peace negotiations are populated by the same parties who exacerbate the conflict, the degree of impunity exerted by the actors on the ground is simply discounted as an unfortunate externality to the pursuit of power and influence.


As Human Rights Watch’s Skye Wheeler intimates, in this conflict with “no good guys or bad guys,” hopefully the involvement of the international community will turn the world’s attention to South Sudan and inhibit the squandering of this “watershed moment for accountability.” In his recent address to the African Union that the US could reassess what “tools they have at their disposal” to “raise the threshold for intransigence” for all parties involved. With the newly empowered IGAD+ (AU, UN, US, UK, EU, Norway, China), regional actors will have to think twice before exerting the same license they have enjoyed until now. 


But actions must not only come from the top. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues, “liberation movements make bad civilians governments.” South Sudanese civil society may still be growing but since the country’s leaders as well as regional actors are unwilling to guarantee civilian protection and interests, it is particularly important for civil society to participate in the peacebuilding process, in particular to show South Sudanese and regional leaders that they have responsibilities towards civilians. The latter’s needs must be taken into account by inviting them to the negotiation table. This includes women, youth and other minority groups. No peace agreement can last without the inclusion not simply of warring factions but of those who suffer at the hands. Four years ago, South Sudanese people demanded a state. Now they also demand peace. They must be given a chance to participate in building a peaceful and sustainable country they can be proud of.



South Sudan, Sudan