The AU's silver bullet to end fighting in South Sudan?


The 27th ordinary summit of the African Union (AU) in Kigali this week ended – as AU summits often do – with a burst of optimism that the secret to resolving yet another intractable continental conflict had been discovered.

The conflict this time was South Sudan, and the silver bullet would be a robust ‘force intervention brigade’ to operate within the existing United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, UNMISS.

South Sudan had once again forced itself to the top of the summit agenda because of the violent breach earlier this month of the August 2015 ceasefire and peace agreement.

The forces of President Salva Kiir and his arch-rival, Vice President Riek Machar, had once again started shooting each other. About 300 people died before the two leaders imposed a precarious new ceasefire. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smaïl Chergui explained at a press conference after the summit ended on Monday, that AU leaders had decided that the AU really had to be ‘on the side of the people’ and so a quick solution was needed to get the peace process back on track and start dispensing humanitarian aid.

At the summit, leaders decided that the AU really had to be ‘on the side of the people’

The leaders had then adopted a proposal from East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), that an African force should be inserted into UNMISS. 

Although it is to be called a Regional Protection Force, Chergui said it would be very like the Force Intervention Brigade which is technically part of Monusco – the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – but with a tougher mandate, enabling it to enforce rather than just keep the peace.

Chergui said the UN Security Council would be meeting within days to decide whether to accept this proposal. ‘When it comes to generating the forces, we are ready for that. That is our responsibility,’ Chergui said, adding that the AU summit had decided on a similar force to intervene in northern Mali. ‘The UN doesn’t have the mandate to impose peace. They are there only when there is a peace to keep. The added value of African forces is that they are ready to engage in very difficult situations, often without the necessary equipment or personnel. But we are ready to do it, because it’s our responsibility.’

These were worthy sentiments and there is no doubt that African forces are performing valiantly. Chergui noted that the troops in AMISOM, the AU mission helping Somalia fight the violent al-Shabaab jihadists, have not suffered a significant loss of morale, despite just taking a 20% pay cut.

The value of African over UN forces is that they’re ready to engage in very difficult situations

But can the proposed new force really end the chronic violence and killing in South Sudan? The most immediate contrast with the DRC protection force is that DRC President Joseph Kabila was willing – indeed eager – for it to intervene because its mandate was mainly to go after his enemies.

Whereas, as Dr Nelson Alusala, a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) points out, Kiir is dead against a forceful AU intervention. Some of the regional allies of both Kiir and Machar are also regarded as lukewarm to the proposed force, others say.

So will the AU march into Juba regardless of Kiir’s wishes, Chergui was asked at his press conference. He suggested not, saying: ‘We are working over the next few days to convince President Kiir to accept this force.’

Alusala draws a pertinent and worrying parallel with Maprobu, the proposed 5 000-strong AU force which the AU Peace and Security Council decided last December to send into Burundi. President Pierre Nkurunziza was firmly opposed to it, saying he would regard it as an invasion force. As a result, at the subsequent AU summit in Addis Ababa in January, the leaders backed right off Maprobu.

It could certainly be argued though that Maprobu was different because it would have been an entirely AU force, whereas the proposed South Sudan force will be part of the UN mission, UNMISS. And UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was at the Kigali summit when the protection force proposal was adopted, lending credibility.

It could also be argued that the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is far greater than that in Burundi and so the pressure on the South Sudanese themselves and their regional allies to allow in a force is much greater. But Alusala remains sceptical, still doubting if the AU will send a robust force into South Sudan when it failed to do so in Burundi.

Can the AU’s proposed new force really end the chronic violence and killing in South Sudan?

‘We are likely to see a prolonged conflict in South Sudan because of the divisions in IGAD,’ says Alusala, referring to the pro-Kiir and pro-Machar regional split relating to the deployment of a regional force.

And so, rather than leaving it to the region, ‘the AU itself may have to take charge’, he added. Alusala suggests the AU should learn a lesson from Burundi, which it left to the East African Community to resolve, with notable lack of success so far.

He also draws an analogy between South Sudan and Mozambique, suggesting that Machar is in a sense like Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, calling for external help in resolving his conflict with Frelimo. While Kiir is like Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, insisting the problem can be resolved internally. (Although it must be added that Nyusi did recently budge and invited foreign mediators.)

Alusala believes these two countries are just the latest examples of a template common to many countries. Which figures. Why would the incumbent want to change the status quo?

One hopes that when it comes to analogies, Machar does not turn out to be more like Jonas Savimbi than Dhlakama. At least from the perspective of Machar’s SPLM-in Opposition, the cause of this month’s flare-up was that Kiir’s soldiers attacked their leader’s home with the intention of eliminating him. Machar has not been heard from for many days, some observers say.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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