Playing for time in the South Sudan peace process

As the main players in the South Sudan conflict stall peace talks to buy time, the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediation process in South Sudan hit another hurdle when talks that were meant to resume on 22 June 2014 were adjourned indefinitely. This followed on objections from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM in Opposition) over the inclusion of civil society groups in the peace process.

The two main protagonists in the conflict – the SPLM in Opposition and the government of South Sudan – claim to be committed to peaceful resolution, but since the mediation process began, both parties seem to have made every effort to scuttle the process, hoping that they can gain an advantage.

The issue of inclusivity has dogged the IGAD mediation process from the very beginning. At one stage, the South Sudan government objected to the participation of the released SPLM detainees. Nevertheless, the IGAD mediators have come to observe that the issue of inclusivity is ‘a natural and logical idea.’ The need for inclusivity of key stakeholders, the IGAD mediation team added, ‘emanates from the fact that the current crisis has transformed from a dispute within the SPLM to a national crisis affecting a number of stakeholders.’

 The issue of inclusivity has dogged the IGAD mediation process from the beginning

The 9 May 2014 Agreement to Resolve the Crisis in South Sudan defined the main stakeholders as the government of South Sudan, the SPLM in Opposition, SPLM leaders (former detainees), faith-based organisations, civil society and political parties. Although President Salva Kiir alleged that he signed the agreement under duress following threats of arrest by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the agreement seemed to have settled the issue of inclusivity in the process. Or did it?

To accommodate the expanded stakeholders in the process, the IGAD mediation team organised a multi-stakeholder symposium in Addis Ababa on 6 – 7 June 2014. The main conclusion was that for peace to prevail, the guns must be silenced. After the symposium, while the civil society organisations had nominated their representatives, they failed to agree on who should actually participate in the talks.

The SPLM in Opposition is using this to object to civil society organisations’ participation in the process. On the other hand, the government of South Sudan also boycotted the opening of the 22 June round of talks. The government accused IGAD Executive Secretary, Mahboub Maalim, of insulting Kiir and undermining the sovereignty of the country when he was quoted as saying that if the two sides to the conflict think that they can solve the crisis on the battlefield, they are stupid.

The SPLM in Opposition claims that the civil society groups that were identified to participate in the process are allied to the government of South Sudan; as opposed to civil society groups drawn from the diaspora and the areas that the SLPM in Opposition is controlling. They either want such groups to be included, or alternatively want to talk directly with the government of South Sudan – with the existing groups limited to being mere observers. But this goes against the spirit of the 9 May agreement, which clearly established civil society groups ‘shall participate in negotiations.’

In adjourning the talks indefinitely, the mediators stated that they were going to engage in consultations with different stakeholders, including the regional heads of state and government. On 27 June 2014, IGAD Chief Mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, held an interactive dialogue with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and accused the parties to the conflict of ‘creating one excuse after another in an attempt to scuttle, narrow or delay the process.’ Nobody knows when the talks – which have so far cost an estimated US$17 million – will restart.

Meanwhile, the conflicting parties had been given two months to establish a government of national unity, a period that is expected to lapse around 10 August 2014. But beyond the objections on the issue of inclusivity, there are clearly behind-the-scenes dynamics, which the armed parties are playing to slow down the process.

First, the SPLM in Opposition has been demanding the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from South Sudan. Within days of the start of the fighting in South Sudan, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had deployed the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) – ostensibly to aid the evacuation of foreign nationals. Subsequently, however, Museveni announced that the UPDF was fighting on the side of the South Sudan government, and had participated in taking back the town of Bor in Jonglei state from the rebels.

The adjournment of talks gives Kiir an opportunity to remain in power

The Ugandan troops have stayed put in South Sudan, but since the UNSC Resolution 2155 of 27 May 2014 expanded the mandate of the United National Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the SPLM in Opposition anticipate that this might lead to the withdrawal of the UPDF. This could open the way for it to mount an offensive to take the capital Juba. In any event, the UNMISS does not have the number of troops to halt such an offensive.

Second, the SPLM in Opposition suffered defeat at the hands of especially the UPDF in the battle for Bor mainly due to its reliance on the infantry troops and light weapons. The superior firepower of the UPDF, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, ensured that the Ugandan army prevailed in the battle. However, since the rainy season has set in, most of the roads have become impassable.

This means that the UPDF will only have a negligible advantage over the rebels in form of their fighting vehicles. The SPLM in Opposition might therefore be buying time until their infantry troops will have a military advantage over the government troops. Already the SPLM in Opposition has been reporting that government troops have deserted their posts in some areas for fear that they will not be resupplied as the roads become impassable.

The current adjournment of the talks also plays into the hands of Kiir’s government. Kiir has not welcomed the proposal for the establishment of a transitional government of national unity in South Sudan. While addressing the South Sudan Parliament, he said that removing him from his job – as demanded by the rebels in the proposed interim government – was a ‘red line’ that should not be crossed. He argued that he was elected by the people and should remain the president until the next elections. The adjournment of talks therefore provides an opportunity for Kiir to remain in power.

The two main sides to the conflict are using the adjournment of the IGAD talks as part of a strategy aimed at gaining the upper hand; either at the negotiating table or on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation remains dire. According to latest reports, the conflict has resulted in more than one million people being internally displaced, with approximately 90 000 people seeking shelter in UN peacekeeping bases, close to 360 000 fleeing to neighbouring countries as refugees, and four million people are deemed to be food insecure.

The South Sudan Humanitarian Pledging Conference that took place in Oslo, Norway towards the end of May 2014 resulted in over US$600 million being pledged, including US$71 million for refugees in neighbouring countries. The actual amount of aid needed for the year 2014 is estimated at US$1,8 billion. For the civilian population in South Sudan, any adjournment of the IGAD process can only mean continued hardship.

Kasaija Phillip Apuuli, Programme Manager, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Related content