What’s new? South Sudan could slide back into war. With a 12 November deadline for the formation of a unity government looming, President Salva Kiir is hinting at assembling one without his chief rival Riek Machar. Even if he includes Machar, contentious issues such as security arrangements and state boundaries remain unresolved.
Why does it matter? Since the September 2018 peace deal, the parties have largely stopped fighting and people can move more freely between towns and fields near front lines. External actors could imperil these gains if they push the parties into a unity government that then falls apart or permit Kiir to exclude Machar.
What should be done? Regional heads of state, the African Union and Western diplomats should urge President Kiir to avoid forming a new government without consensus. They should step in to help mediate a way forward, given political paralysis among South Sudan’s neighbours, initially envisioned as the deal’s key guarantors.
South Sudan is barrelling toward a crisis as it nears a 12 November deadline to form a government. President Salva Kiir is threatening to leave opposition leader and former vice president Riek Machar, who is demanding a delay to the new government, out of a new cabinet. Even if the two leaders agree to share power, disputes over security arrangements and state boundaries would poison the new administration, potentially leading to its collapse. Either scenario risks reigniting a war that has killed, by some estimates, several hundred thousands of people and displaced one third of the population. Regional leaders, supported by the African Union (AU), the UN and Western diplomats, should urge Kiir not to form a government without Machar. They should push the parties to agree on state boundaries, even if they leave the most contentious ones for later; on a credible security plan for the capital Juba; and on a new timeline for military reform. While mounting frustration with Kiir and Machar is justified, external actors should not press the two men to share power absent such agreements.
The September 2018 peace deal signed by Kiir and Machar is at risk, as is the accompanying ceasefire. That ceasefire has largely ended five years of war pitting Kiir against Machar and other rebels. South Sudanese enjoy more freedom of movement and better access to their fields and humanitarian aid. But the parties have failed to form a transitional unity government, a precondition for elections in 2022. Their deadline for doing so, according to the 2018 deal, was originally May. It is now 12 November, after an extension facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of East African states. The two leaders have done virtually nothing over the past six months to resolve the two main sticking points: security arrangements and South Sudan’s state boundaries. While the ceasefire has held, it is endangered by the two leaders’ failure to reach an agreement on those issues, combined with pressure from external actors for them to form a government without doing so, and, worst of all, by Kiir’s threats that he might appoint a cabinet that excludes Machar.
"In the past, only when IGAD leaders have been directly involved have Kiir and Machar shown any inclination to compromise."
A revival of IGAD heads of state’s high-level diplomacy that helped forge the 2018 peace deal is a priority. In the past, only when IGAD leaders have been directly involved have Kiir and Machar shown any inclination to compromise. Given Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s overthrow, a new configuration for regional diplomacy could include Sudan’s new civilian leader Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, together with his Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts, and potentially with AU and UN support. Hamdok and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in particular have their hands full at home. But all South Sudan’s neighbours would suffer the consequences – refugee influxes, economic disruption, including loss of South Sudan’s oil, and proxy conflicts straddling their borders – were the ceasefire to break down.
Regional heads of state should stress to Kiir that he form a government only with Machar on board and press both parties to reach agreements on security arrangements and state boundaries. On the former issue, they should try to thwart Kiir’s and Machar’s plans to share armed control of the capital Juba, a scenario which has twice triggered war in the past. More broadly, IGAD leaders should seek the two leaders’ consensus on a new, incremental timeline for unification of their forces into a national army. A staggered timeline would allow those forces ready to integrate into the national army to do so, while creating space for political steps to win over those reluctant to lose their autonomy. On state boundaries, regional leaders should push for agreement on the number of states, which appears to be within reach and would allow for the local power sharing envisaged in the 2018 peace deal that could in turn prevent more conflict. They could defer agreement on the most contentious boundaries, particularly that around Malakal in the Upper Nile region.
"Many South Sudanese and external actors are infuriated by the two South Sudanese leaders’ failure to form a government."
Many South Sudanese and external actors are infuriated – and justifiably so – by the two South Sudanese leaders’ failure to form a government or make headway on army reform and delimitation over the past year. The two men’s intransigence stands in stark contrast to the desperation of war-weary South Sudanese to find a sustainable end to the conflict. But the demand that Kiir and Machar form a government, come what may, is perilous. It could jeopardise a ceasefire that has not yet turned the page on the country’s brutal civil war but has brought a let-up in the bloodshed and disruption. The better option is renewed diplomacy by IGAD heads of state, supported by the AU, aiming to block Kiir from unilaterally appointing a new cabinet and to press him and Machar to at least partly resolve their most bitter disputes before entering a unity government.