The signing in September 2018 of a new peace agreement between the government of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, main rebel leader Riek Machar and other opposition forces has been called a milestone. It’s a welcome development, but many among South Sudan’s 2.5 million refugees and 1.8 million internally displaced are frustrated about the process and feel left behind.
Displaced people are among those most affected by the ongoing crisis, yet often they feel the least included in the decisions that affect their lives. Two research projects by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) interviewed over 200 South Sudanese civilians over the past year, most of them displaced in South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia.
Many blamed their leaders for prioritising rent seeking over peace, and for digging in rather than finding compromises. ‘Our leaders are not after peace, but after positions,’ said one displaced woman in Wau in north-western South Sudan.
One of the most commonly voiced contentions was that the leadership was more focused on power sharing and self-enrichment than on addressing the root causes of violence, like local tensions, governance failures and corruption.
While the new Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) had not yet been signed at the time of the research, respondents were highly critical of the peace process. That effort was led first by the East African regional bloc, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and then by member states Sudan and Uganda.
Many people expressed frustration with both the mediation process and the South Sudanese political leadership participating in the talks. Refugees in Ethiopia, for example, accused IGAD of bias, pointing to the exclusion of Machar in the first phase of the talks. Respondents elsewhere blamed IGAD for the collapse of the original deal signed in 2015, saying it had failed to follow through on implementation and punish those hindering the process.
Regional interests were seen as trumping conflict-resolution initiatives; questions were raised about Uganda’s dual role as both peace mediator and party to the conflict when it sent troops to South Sudan after the outbreak of violence in 2013. One refugee in Uganda commented: ‘IGAD has issues with neutrality and confidence among actors. Some IGAD countries are involved in the war in South Sudan. They have interests.’
Many complained about a lack of access to information and an inability to voice their views. Interviewees also felt disconnected from the elite-driven peace process, which they said lacked significant citizen participation.
A small number of refugee representatives were invited to attend parts of the High-Level Revitalisation Forum, in which the new deal was brokered, but they were limited to observer status. Some felt represented through civil society organisations or politicians – refugees in Ethiopia, for example, expressed strong support for former (and future) vice-president Machar. But others noted the shortcomings in the legitimacy of these delegates.
Because so little information filtered down to ordinary South Sudanese, rumours dominated local discussions, filling the information vacuum with unverified, word-of-mouth accounts that further muddied the picture, respondents said.
Many interviewees called for wider talks but said this should ideally take place after the security situation had improved and with more inclusive conditions than the existing national dialogue. The national dialogue was announced by Kiir in December 2016 and comprised a series of consultations in South Sudan and, to a limited extent, neighbouring countries. The process was controversial from the start, seen both as a tool of the Kiir government and a competitor to the IGAD-led peace efforts.
While some displaced South Sudanese said they might try to go home if and when a peace deal was signed, most were apprehensive and wanted to see more concrete signs of progress before making risky returns.
Respondents mentioned several failed peace agreements and their lack of implementation. Many said the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement – which ushered in South Sudan’s independence in 2011 – was the only accord implemented successfully.
‘This time round, IGAD must learn from experience,’ one internally displaced person said. ‘They should try to put in place everything it takes to protect the agreement, and those who try to go against it must be punished.’
The current peace agreement, however, has no built-in sanction mechanisms and keeps several provisions that were problematic in the past, including the often-criticised monitoring bodies from the 2015 deal. The signing of the new agreement may be a milestone, but what does it really mean for the millions of people still displaced?
The ISS and IRRI research clearly shows that people will only feel confident about the peace process if those in charge commit to implementing all the provisions of the new agreement, including those on security, government reform and accountability.
Displaced citizens must be properly informed about the peace deal and more closely connected to its implementation and monitoring. This starts with better communication – disseminating the provisions of the peace agreement to people who are vulnerable and displaced. But it should ultimately lead to a new nationwide dialogue that includes all ordinary citizens in planning South Sudan’s future.
Only the feeling of being involved will end the sense of alienation and allow those most affected by the war to start imagining a more positive future. This is the surest way to engage them in the political process and in turn reduce the risk of renewed conflict.
Omar Mahmood, Senior Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa and Thijs Van Laer, Programme Director, Prevention and Resolution of Exile, International Refugee Rights Initiative in Uganda
This article was first published by IRIN News, a news agency specialising in reporting on humanitarian crises and emergencies.
Read the full ISS report: Nobody came to ask us: South Sudanese refugee perceptions of the peace process
Picture: Rikka Tupaz / IOM