One of the world’s most severe conflicts may be lurching towards some kind of conclusion, however morally unsatisfying.
On August 26th, South Sudanese president Salva Kiir finally signed a peace agreement that will formally end nearly two years of civil war in the world’s youngest nation, which gained its Independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011.
Kiir, under the threat of possible international sanctions and a UN arms embargo, adopted the accord some two weeks after rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar signed it.
Kiir strongly implied that he had signed the agreement under duress and perhaps even against his own better judgment: “It is not a Bible, it is not a Quran,” Kiir said of the agreement, according to the Wall Street Journal.
South Sudan’s government has certainly exacerbated the country’s crisis: Kiir pushed for constitutional changes that strengthened his grip on the ruling Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), while the army has been credibly accuse dof committing war crimes in its fight against a constellation of rebel groups.
The war also sprang from a long-simmering conflict between rival ethnic cadres in the SPLM, the political party of which Kiir is head and an entity that isn’t too far removed from its roots as a revolutionary guerrilla movement.
Kiir’s frustrating is warranted, even if the civil war, which has displaced over 2 million people, was the partial result of his recalcitrance and overall failure to meaningfully reform the SPLM. This treaty marks the 8th agreement aimed at ending hte conflict, and it stands a better chance of succeeding than its predecessors. But even fi it holds, it only represents a return to an untenable status quo — the negation of a hot conflict, rather than a durable long-term peace.
The biggest problem with the agreement has to do with the composition of South Sudan’s post-conflict transitional government.
The agreement is a road map by which Machar can re-enter the government as the First Vice President of the Republic. As a purported treaty text published by the Sudan Tribune puts it, “The First Vice President of the [transitional government] shall be selected by the South Sudan Armed Opposition.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that Machar defected from the SPLM, only to rejoin his former colleagues as an esteemed member of the movement.
In 1994, during Sudan’s decades-long north-south war, Machar and the fighters loyal to him left the SPLM and effectively switched sides, fighting alongside groups allied with the government in Khartoum.
Machar returned to the SPLM in 2002 after repudiating his alliance with the Sudanese government and was an important enough figure to become first vice president of an independent South Sudan in 2011.
Machar’s roadmap back to respectability comes after two defections from the ruling party, one of which involved armed insurrection against Kiir’s internationally recognised government.
A serious peace agreement had to include rehabilitating Machar — South Sudan’s topography and infrastructure makes an absolutely military victory nearly impossible for either side, while it’s hardly unprecedented for peace agreements to result in impunity for a conflict’s guiltiest parties. Kiir gets to keep his job as well, after all.
At the same time, the peace agreement perpetuates the essentially transactional dynamic of rebellion against the SPLM, a decades-old pattern in which major leadership enters and leaves the movement based on their own relative power and the interest of the various ethnic or ideological cliques they represent.
This isn’t so unexpected for an armed rebellion — civil wars often bring together oppositional political and social forces, and that cohesion often buckles under the brutal realities of sustained conflict.
But it’s an ominous cycle for an independent sovereign state. South Sudan’s independence held out the promise of a new beginning — of one of the world’s most troubled regions plotting its own way forward. The peace agreement reveals that simply returning to a kind of pre-independence status quo is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
There’s one other area in which the treaty threatens to freeze the conditions for conflict. As the New York Times notes, the agreement “requires the government and rebels to share control over the nation’s oil fields,” on the basis of the opposition’s integration into the official security sector.
According to the World Bank, South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world, with oil representing nearly the entirety of South Sudan’s exports and 60% of its GDP. As with Machar’s reintegration into the government, it was probably unreasonable to expect that the rebels would simply vacate some of South Sudan’s most economically and strategically vital real estate.
But the arrangement still leaves the former armed opposition — a disorganized rebellion that isn’t even under the direct control of a single figure — with a great degree of leverage and an easy spoiler if the peace process fails to meet its expectations. It also leaves Kiir and his allies with a ready-made practical justification for restarting the conflict.
These aren’t insurmountable problems for a rebel movement learning how to fill a violent political vacuum. But South Sudan was supposed to have moved past that point by now. Even in a moment of qualified hope, the country is showing how far it still has to go.
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