The Government of South Sudan (GOSS) and the rebels led by former vice-president Riek Machar have reportedly signed a cessation of hostilities (COH) Thursday that should bring the violence to an end within 24 hours. Whether or not the COH can be implemented due to the serious command and control issues on both sides of the violence—especially the rebels which are not one unified force—remains to be seen. If the COH agreement holds it will bring an end to fighting that has displaced more than 400,000 individuals from their homes and caused the deaths of anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 (or more) people since fighting first broke out on December 15th of last year.
What seems to have started as a dispute between members of the presidential guard (which may or may not have been along ethnic lines) quickly spiraled out of control amidst the backdrop of rising ethno/political tensions in the fledgling country. While never fully stable, South Sudan had recently seen an increase in political strife. The political tensions came to a head when, in July of last year, President Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet including his vice president Riek Machar, throwing the barely functioning government into further disarray. Some feared then that the tensions within the party could lead to a tense standoff between the two major ethnic groups (the Dinka and the Nuer) in South Sudan, of which Kiir and Machar belong to (respectively). Others specifically warned that if the crisis goes unaddressed it could very well “spiral into a full-blown catastrophe.” Apparently those warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
The initial outbreak of violence was erroneously reported as a coup attempt. However, in the days since, it spurred not only open rebellion but also vast ethnic violence. Seeming to be grabbing at the opportunity, as opposed to a well thought out plan, Machar took the lead on the rebellion and with that leadership came a level of ethnic division between the conflict parties. The rebellion was not made up of one unified fighting force but instead was an amalgamation of defected SPLM soldiers and other militia groups like the now almost infamous White Army who reportedly has been conscripting child soldiers amongst their ranks.
During the fighting ethnic tensions were further exacerbated. With numerous reports of killings and other atrocities being committed by both sides the rebellion quickly spiraled out of control and was on the verge of sparking a countrywide ethnic conflict. In an interview with the BBC, Ivan Simonovic the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, after visiting South Sudan on a fact finding mission, said that there were reports of “mass killings, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, widespread destruction and looting of property and use of the children in conflict.”
The COH agreement that was negotiated in Addis Ababa under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was an exclusive process with only the top tier ‘big guns’ represented; exactly the opposite kind of peace negotiation that activists like me and others have called for repeatedly. Choosing to exclude the voices of civil society and religious leaders from the process is a step in the wrong direction. And while this was only the first in what will likely be a long process, a more inclusive approach could have been taken.
The good and bad news is that the COH is just the beginning. A lot more work will need to be done before South Sudan is at peace but a peace process can be successful if the right measures are taken. Moving forward, it must be recognized that a ‘quick and dirty’ peace deal with only the top actors will not solve South Sudan’s woes. Worse, it could send the wrong message to other factions that the way to achieving power is to stage a rebellion and force the government into a power sharing deal—one needs only to look at the Central African Republic’s history for a lesson in what not to do. If the two parties and the negotiators think that a simple power sharing arrangement is going to solve the issues plaguing South Sudan they are sorely mistaken. A power sharing deal already existed…that’s what led to President Kiir and Riek Machar to be united in governing South Sudan after secession. One cannot even imagine what creating a ‘government of national unity’ now would look like, not to mention the inherent irony that would be attached to such a government.
So what should be done? While the road to peace in South Sudan will be long and bumpy (not unlike many of the ‘roads’ in South Sudan) peace can be achieved only if the process is inclusive. A concerted effort needs to be made by all parties—on the ground and internationally—to include civil society and the South Sudanese people’s voices in the process. There are a lot of unresolved issues that never were addressed internally during the endeavor of creating a new nation. These issues need to be addressed. The South Sudanese people were fractionalized before, during, and after secession. Efforts to unify the people should be undertaken.
Accountability for human rights abuses committed during the violence must be sought on both sides. Blanket amnesties, inclusions of former rebels into the SPLA (the government’s military), and giving rebel commanders the rank of general is not the solution. A plan and path toward reconciliation must be created. The mechanisms for both justice and reconciliation should be a mixed system that incorporates formal justice mechanisms as well as locally-led truth telling efforts to maximize effectiveness and community buy-in.
The government needs to undergo a serious restructuring that focuses on incorporating the democratic and inclusive ideals that the country was founded on. Serious security sector reform is also a crucial piece of the puzzle. Since the nation was born the SPLA has had a troubled human rights record. Perhaps the worst example of which occurred in 2012 when reports of widespread abuses including torture, shootings, and sexual violence occurred during a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program in Jonglei State.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done but the important thing to note is that it can be done. South Sudan does not need to become another failed state that the international community writes off. It will take a united effort from within South Sudan and without from diaspora, international aid agencies, governments, the UN and the AU. Most importantly the South Sudanese people need to have a role to play in the future of their country. Moving forward, including the people in the process will be fundamental to sustainable peace.