South Sudan's September deal 'just a first step'

A new peace agreement was signed in South Sudan on 12 September 2018 in an attempt to bring an end to the five-year war in the country. Andrews Atta-Asamoah, an Institute for Security Studies expert on the Horn of Africa, spoke to the PSC Report about the current peace process and assessed the way forward.

Is the peace deal that was signed in September 2018 holding?

There have been a number of significant developments in South Sudan since the signing of the revised peace agreement. The most notable have been the return of key opposition leaders, including opposition leader Riek Machar, to Juba for the 31 October celebration of peace; the government’s release of some prisoners; ongoing efforts to constitute relevant institutions in the agreement such as the National Pre-Transition Committee, the National Constitutional Amendment Committee and the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Monitoring and Verification Mechanisms; and, most importantly, the notable decline in hostilities and violence across the country.

It is, however, difficult to attribute the reduction in hostilities entirely to the peace agreement. The inability of the opposition to match the government’s war capacity, which has been the case for a while, has contributed significantly to the reduction in the number of cases of fighting and clashes across the country. Since the signing of the agreement, one can argue that violence has decreased even further. But a lot of work remains to be done and it is overall too early for anybody to confidently conclude that the agreement is holding.

I would say the greatest contribution of the agreement, so far, has been in its provision of a framework through which all the parties seem to be gradually coming to terms with the reality of the urgency of the need for peace in their country. Signing agreements is usually not a big deal in South Sudan; sustaining it is the real work. In that sense, the September signing is just the very first step.

Signing agreements is usually not a big deal in South Sudan; sustaining it is the real work

Can refugees start thinking of returning home?

My answer is simple: no. Some progress towards peace has been made but the country is far away from where it ought to be before refugees and internally displaced people can be returned. There is need to commend the little progress made, but there is greater need for caution in rushing people whose villages and livelihoods have been totally obliterated by years of fighting into the situation of uncertainty. The extent of destruction in parts of the country is extreme. Restoring villages, livelihoods and confidence to return will take time.

Have the main opposition leaders now returned to Juba permanently?

As stated earlier, a number of opposition leaders, including Machar, returned to Juba for the peace celebration, which took place on 31 October 2018. Since then, Machar has returned to Khartoum. Other opposition leaders, including Gabriel Changson, Joseph Bakasoro, Bafeng Munytiel, Deng Alor and some others, are still in Juba. Lam Akol is in Khartoum. Currently, sources close to the opposition indicate that the actual final return of key leaders to South Sudan will be predicated on the provisions of the revised agreement, but in cases of big peace events like the 31 October celebration, we might see some of the leaders jetting to Juba, on a temporary basis.

In cases of big peace events like the 31 October celebration, we might see some of the leaders jetting to Juba, on a temporary basis

What are the most urgent issues that need to be resolved in order for the peace deal to be implemented and to make sure the country doesn’t slide back into full-scale warfare?

Not all opposition actors are happy with the current agreement. Their biggest complaint, for a while now, has been that their positions were not fully represented. Also that the revised agreement does not address the underlying causes of the conflict. There are also important matters outside of the revised agreement that need to inform shuttle diplomacy efforts by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and various regional, continental and international special envoys.

The most urgent matter for sustaining the agreement is confidence building among the parties, particularly between the major opposition groups and the government. Without trust between President Salva Kiir and Machar, this agreement too will fail. The Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, said in his speech at the peace celebration in Juba that ‘the key ingredient needed at every step is trust'. I completely agree with him.

The most urgent matter for sustaining the agreement is confidence building among the parties

Other important issues include the need to cultivate and sustain commitment to full implementation. For instance, even though it is encouraging that some prisoners have been released, many more remain behind bars. The government also needs to remove impediments to humanitarian access by the National Security Service so as to carry out its promise of easing human suffering in the country. Going forward, it is crucial to anchor overall gains on a solid programme for national reconciliation once the guns have finally been silenced.

Who do we have to thank for this latest peace deal? The neighbours? IGAD?

It’s been a collective effort. The last round of talks in Khartoum was led by Sudan and Uganda. Prior to that the regional body, IGAD, pushed the High-Level Revitalisation Forum, which fed into the Khartoum talks. The Troika (the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom) and the broader international community have all played important roles in putting pressure on the regional actors and the warring parties to work toward peace. The South Sudan peace process has revealed a lot about institutional and diplomatic weakness at the regional, continental and international levels. I do hope the lessons learned can inform internal processes for reforming responses to crises on the continent.

What should be the priorities for the African Union (AU) and particularly the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in dealing with South Sudan going forward?

There’s a general sense that the region and the AU have favoured the government

The PSC should support the regional efforts to implement the revised peace agreement. There’s a general sense that the region and the AU have favoured the government extensively. At this point, the PSC should be ready to apply the needed pressure to get all signatories to respect the peace agreement. Beyond remaining seized of the matter, the AU’s special envoy should play an active role in supporting ongoing regional and international efforts in the country. The PSC should be ready to apply sanctions where necessary. The PSC should also spearhead and speed up ongoing processes for accountability and justice, because that is the only way the pervasive extent of impunity can be dealt with in South Sudan and beyond.

What happens if this agreement fails?

I have tried not to imagine that; even though that is highly possible. My reason for not imagining that is because I know how much the people of South Sudan have suffered due to this war. Currently, I am not aware of any Plan B on any policy shelf, either at the regional or at the continental level. The current Plan A is the Plan B. So I think it must work. If it doesn’t work, then there will be the need for the international community to consider the idea of instituting a technocratic government, which various opposition groups have been proposing for a while now. If a technocratic government becomes the option, the first requirement of such a move should be to exclude the ruling class.

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