Patching up South Sudan’s broken political space

The formation of South Sudan’s new unity government on 22 February 2020 is a major milestone in recent efforts to restore peace in that country. This is the first successful attempt to form an inclusive government since 2016.

The period in the run-up to the 22 February deadline saw heightened diplomatic efforts by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and South Africa's Deputy President David Mabuza. The swearing-in of opposition leader Riek Machar and four other vice presidents was thus a relief not only to the people of South Sudan but also to the many regional and international actors involved in the search for peace in the country.

The swearing-in of opposition leader Riek Machar and four other vice presidents was a relief

Yet the diplomatic pressure needed to secure the last-minute deal has left many wondering whether the actors will be committed to the outcome of the process, whether the way ahead for the new unity arrangement will be any different from the failed attempt in 2016, and whether it will be able to bring about lasting peace in South Sudan.

Cause for hope

Despite the fragile nature of the unity government, there are a number of major improvements on the previous one that give rise to cautious optimism. Apart from the fact that the June 2018 ceasefire increasingly seems to be holding, the compromises the parties made in the run-up to February 22 are key.

Under intense pressure, President Salva Kiir reversed his controversial decree to create 32 states in South Sudan and accepted a return to the pre-war 10 states. Although he named Ruweng as a new administrative area, which some feared could jeopardise the agreement, many consider the move a bold show of goodwill amid the various interests and sensitivities that developed around the creation of the 32 states.

Machar also backed down on his earlier insistence on having his own private security on his return to Juba and accepted government protection. This was significant given previous attempts on Machar’s life. In 2016 he had to flee on foot from Juba to the Democratic Republic of Congo after being pursued by government forces.

Many believe that the weight of these compromises suggests some level of commitment to the process.

Many believe that the weight of these compromises suggests some level of commitment to the process

A damaging stalemate

The second reason for cautious optimism is the negative effects the lack of progress in restoring peace had.

Even though Kiir’s government has had the upper hand on the battlefield against the various opposition forces, it failed to maintain a healthy relationship with key international actors and to sustain the international goodwill the country had at independence.

The Kiir government’s lack of political will and poor human rights record had a negative impact and towards the end of the pre-transitional period the government increasingly slipped into an antagonistic relationship with major powers. Regionally, the lack of progress also contributed to a ‘wait and see’ attitude by some countries, including Kenya, which became notably absent from regional diplomatic efforts regarding South Sudan.

Kiir’s government failed to maintain a healthy relationship with key international actors

Meanwhile, Machar’s opposition group has also been on the back foot since the collapse of the 2015 peace agreement, and lacked the capacity to match the government’s military strength.

In addition, the proliferation of armed groups and the emergence of leaders such as Thomas Cirillo and Paul Malong to contest Machar’s dominance of the opposition political space diluted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–In Opposition’s (SPLM-IO) position as the go-to party for those who opposed Kiir.

Both the government and the main opposition (SPLM-IO) were locked in a stalemate that would have been difficult for either to sustain in the long run.

The formation of the current unity government has thus been in the interest of both leaders, as it gives them new relevance. Many believe that this could motivate Kiir and Machar to work together in the interest of peace, rather than against each other.

The formation of the current unity government has been in the interest of both leaders

Return to the status quo

Despite the optimism in some circles, however, there is still deep mistrust between Kiir and Machar.

Machar still intends to contest Kiir for the presidency, and there is no clear indication whether Kiir will be receptive to such an idea. The antagonism between the two leaders over this issue helped to trigger the crisis in 2013.

Bringing the two into the unity government without any significant changes to the underlying contestation between them effectively restores the status quo. The formation of the current unity government can, thus, at best, be described as patching up South Sudan’s broken political space. This is necessary to silence the guns in the interim, but offers no lasting solution to the underlying drivers of instability in the country.

There is no indication that the current configuration will generate any new ideas

It is therefore an arrangement that assumes that the two rivals will look beyond their differences to find a working formula for dealing with the crisis. Despite increasing the number of vice presidents, there is no indication that the current configuration will generate any new ideas. It is imperative that facilitators of the peace process continue to build confidence among members of the rather large presidency.

The current configuration has effectively returned South Sudan to its pre-war political context. It raises questions as to whether the country will be able to construct a new political space that revolves around the state rather than personalities.

The dangers ahead

One of the risks to the new government is that the opposition could again fracture if the expectations of the various interest groups are not met.

The opposition could again fracture if the expectations of the various interest groups are not met

The existence of some armed groups outside the current process and outstanding issues in terms of the security arrangements are also crucial matters that will determine the success or otherwise of the unity government. Any defecting faction is likely to join the groups currently outside the unity government.

In a country with a history of political fracturing and transactional politics, managing existing interests, contestations over emerging interests and outstanding issues is a delicate balancing act. Currently, any further splintering of the armed groups will significantly offset gains made in forming the unity government and derail the process.

The role of external support

One of the major lessons from the current process in South Sudan is that concerted regional and international efforts in support of willing domestic initiatives can make a major difference in the search for peace. The regional consensus that informed the final push to end the pre-transition phase and the pressure that came with it should continue in order to sustain the unity government.

Going forward, development partners should support the unity government so that citizens can reap the dividends of peace. It is also imperative that partners adopt a common voice in their messaging for maximum impact.

The African Union Peace and Security Council needs to commend the parties for making the necessary last-minute concessions to establish the unity government. The council should also decisively reiterate its rejection of spoilers and its readiness to sanction any policy or action by individuals, entities and groups meant to sabotage peace in South Sudan.

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