Kiir and Machar kiss and make up yet again

But looming elections and the challenge of unifying the army could once more derail South Sudan’s peace deal.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice-President Riek Machar shook hands this week on yet another agreement to revive the chronically faltering peace deal in Africa’s newest nation – and one of its most troubled.

At a signing ceremony in the capital Juba on Sunday night, both leaders and their parties recommitted to the ceasefire and other terms of the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (RARCSS). Notable among the terms was an urgent acceleration of the integration of their armed forces.

The meeting had become necessary after renewed clashes between the government’s South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). In March, Machar’s forces announced their withdrawal from the peace monitoring body over ‘unprovoked attacks’ on their bases by government troops. Machar urged the Intergovernmental Authority on Development mediators to intervene to save the peace deal, appealing particularly to Sudan, one of the guarantors of the 2018 agreement.

And Sudan did help secure the latest agreement, which a source close to the negotiations called ‘a quite significant and necessary step in the right direction which will lead to calm for some months.’ But to be useful, it would have to be followed by concrete implementation of the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements in the RARCSS.  

Concrete implementation of the ceasefire and security arrangements in the RARCSS is vital

An earlier unilateral move by Kiir offered five command positions in the army and the police to Machar’s SPLM/A-IO and to the South Sudan Opposition Alliance – which Machar rejected. The parties have now basically agreed on the division of senior command positions.

But the more complicated part of creating a unified army will be integrating rival parties’ rank and file. Machar has tried to pre-empt this by promoting an enormous number of his fighters to senior officer rank. Integration of the armed forces will also be very expensive, and the South Sudanese government and opposition are trying to persuade international donors to foot the bill.

But the donors are refusing, saying their budget is for development aid, not security. They also believe the country can afford to cover the costs. ‘South Sudan’s coffers had been swelled by rising global oil prices,’ one official told ISS Today. ‘And they need to show willingness to use their own resources … or they’re not really serious about this.’

Apart from the RARCSS’ security requirements, much else remains to be done to set South Sudan on a steady course for peace and stability.

The more complicated part of creating a unified army is the integration of rival parties’ rank and file

The 2018 peace agreement ‘revitalised’ the 2015 accord between Kiir and Machar. The first one fell apart spectacularly in July 2016 when Machar had to flee Juba as Kiir’s troops came after him. The 2018 deal has helped prevent a repeat of the 2016 violence, but sporadic skirmishes and regional clashes have continued.

And fears are now rising that the inevitably heightened tensions over elections, set for next year, could trigger a return to major violence and instability. The transition is due to end in December, with the 2023 polls ushering in a democratic government.

But the list of unmet requirements in the RARCSS for holding elections and beyond is still alarmingly long. These include constitutional and institutional reforms, legislative measures, legal measures and voter registration. This has sparked a debate in the country about the minimum that must be done for elections to be legitimate.

Some South Sudanese analysts punt a more flexible approach, arguing that elections widely perceived as credible will be enough. But the core international partners – the United States, United Kingdom and Norway – insist that all conditions in the RARCSS are necessary. However, they are flexible on the margins, such as being prepared to entertain a thorough voter registration without a census.

Fears are rising that heightened tensions over next year’s elections could trigger a return to violence

Likewise, the United Nations (UN) three-member Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan warns the country could plunge into violence if elections are held before the government implements constitutional provisions that solidify the peace agreement. Commission member Andrew Clapham told the Voice of America that, ‘The consequences of a rushed poll, within a contested political system and without requisite security and democratic conditions in place, could indeed be disastrous.’

Because so much remains to be done, some argue for a postponement of the polls, though others say this will further undermine the transitional government’s legitimacy. Even more vital than the technical conditions is creating a conducive environment for free and fair elections, which few believe now exists.

UN Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka was scathing in her assessment of South Sudan’s political environment. She told Voice of America that the government was riddled with corruption, and the political elite was looting the treasury. Civil rights were repressed, and human rights activists and journalists routinely faced death threats and detention. Sooka said conflict-related sexual violence was widespread and systematic.

‘In this climate of fear and terror, how can we talk about constitution-making, elections and transitional justice? Are national consultations even possible?’ she asked. And deeper even than all of that, one suspects, is the abiding, lethal distrust between Kiir and Machar, which seems to be the mainspring for the country’s chronic instability.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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Image: © Jok Solomun/REUTERS

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