The United States Institute of Peace published my briefing on the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF), intended to revive the stalled 2015 peace agreement in South Sudan. I offer recommendations for the international community in anticipation of the launch of the HLRF, suggesting its success hinges on clarifying serious ambiguities that exist in its design, including the questions of who will participate and the extent of the agenda. Read more here.
The leading U.S. government voices on South Sudan will soon be out of office. Over the last eight years, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and USAID Administrator (and formerly, Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director at the National Security Council) Gayle Smith have given the South Sudan file prominence and attention in Washington that the South Sudanese government scarcely appreciates. To the long list of things in flux in American foreign policy in 2017, we can probably add: a decline in U.S. attention towards South Sudan.
Many in the increasingly repressive and intolerant Juba government were quick to publicly gloat at the election of Donald Trump. The defeat of the Democrats was further occasion to express disdain at the Obama administration and what Juba perceives as its championing of policies unjust to South Sudan.
This week, the EastAfrican published online an op-ed I wrote on Kenya’s relations with South Sudan (it appeared in print the week previously). I must note that the headline was not of my choosing, but mere scribes are not consulted about such things. The point remains: Kenya suffers from disengagement. See the full text here.
This is my first article about South Sudan since I was expelled by the GRSS in late April, at which point I was part of the JMEC secretariat. It is also the first time I have written publicly about South Sudan since I joined the IGAD mediation team in May 2014, and became part of the messy world of the peace process.
After I left Juba, I felt that anything I might say about the implementation of the peace agreement could have been counterproductive, given the animosity some felt towards me. I did not want to create any complications for those who were continuing to work for peace.
But in light of the calamitous events in Juba over the last few days, the little I can do is to offer my knowledge of the process, in the hope that it can contribute to a way forward. I agree with Matt LeRiche that now is a time for restrained and carefully considered contribution, and these thoughts are offered in that spirit.
The original transitional security arrangements (TSA) proposed for Juba were rejected by the parties. The arrangements the parties eventually did agree were never fully implemented.
The original proposal for transitional security arrangements (TSA) in Juba would have capped the number of forces of both the SPLA and the SPLA-IO at much, much lower numbers than what was eventually agreed. Both parties rejected the IGAD mediators’ proposals. The IGAD heads of state did not insist, in August 2015, on setting exact numbers for permitted forces in Juba.
It was not until November 2015 that the size of the force permitted to remain in Juba was agreed, after a further series of workshops and meetings. It is only this last document that speaks of troop numbers in Juba, an agreement that was the product of the Parties. It is here that the SPLA troop limit was set at 3,420; the SPLA-IO was entitled to 1,410. Each side was to contribute 1,500 police to a new joint police force; it was acknowledged that many of these police officers would come from, or be former members of, the SPLA.
Critics have lambasted the concept of two separate forces in Juba. Alex de Waal called the idea ‘insane’, (Bloomberg, April 27).
I will return to the question of two forces in a moment. But first, it is important to understand the motivations of the parties for maintaining such large numbers. For the SPLA-IO, the idea was a force sufficiently large and equipped as to deter the SPLA from attacking IO leadership. For the SPLA, the demilitarization of Juba was completely unacceptable on grounds of sovereignty; the SPLA was not defeated, and had to remain superior both numerically and in terms of its capability.
One does not have to accept the premises of either side; the point is that this is what the parties believed and argued for at the time. Both positions clearly tended towards greater, rather than lesser, militarization in Juba.
Could IGAD have insisted on lower force numbers? Certainly, the mediators could have fought harder on this issue. But had they succeeded, it might still have been a hollow victory: without any way to enforce compliance, short of invading South Sudan and occupying Juba, the true challenge, we all understood, would come in implementation, with the SPLA required to withdraw a significant number of forces from Juba and environs.
In practice, the SPLA made it exceedingly difficult for the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM) to conclusively verify that it was respecting the troop limits. There is still no definitive answer as to how many government forces actually remain in Juba. For his part, Riek Machar did not make things easy either, by insisting on the bulk of agreed IO forces being present in Juba before he would return.
Was the concept of two forces in Juba a mistake? It is perhaps obvious to conclude so in light of what happened in Juba over the last week. But consider the alternatives, then and now. Many of us within the mediation advocated for a more complete demilitarization of Juba. As I wrote above, the parties were not willing to accept this, and nobody, at the time, saw a realistic means of enforcement.
The one force approach – an integrated army – was, in the short term, a fantasy. It was, after all, the implosion of the presidential guard, a force with rival loyalties, that started the war in December 2013. There is also the instructive example of South Sudan’s prior attempts at combined units, the Joint Integrated Units (JIUs), which in their time, also failed so spectacularly; volumes have been written about the problems of integration of the SSDF into the SPLA. Integration can be mandated; trust in one’s fellow soldiers cannot.
The mediators had no illusions about what might happen in an environment of mistrust and poor communications. Whether you are talking about a hundred armed men or a thousand, incidents are likely to happen. However, it is not the likelihood of incidents that is the critical factor. It is the mechanism by which they are addressed. Both formal – the Joint Operations Centre (JOC), which was to ensure the ‘avoidance of conflict between the activities conducted by the security forces permitted to remain in Juba’, and informal, more political, mechanisms never became meaningful, and it was the absence of such mechanisms to address incidents, that, tragically was, and remains, the real danger.
From what we know so far, events in Juba seem to have followed this trajectory all too closely – a series of smaller, but still serious incidents occurred over the course of several days. These were managed ineffectually and/or incompletely. The failure to extinguish these sparks then leads to a conflagration, fuelled by a terrible combination of incompetence and belligerence.
All of this is to say that nothing about what has happened in Juba was inevitable. At multiple junctures, the course of events could have been altered. Critiquing security arrangements now is to some extent to miss the broader point, that the escalation of conflict does not happen by chance: it is a policy decision.
Ultimately, the transitional security arrangements did not work. So what about the third party force option?
The mediators were the first to propose a third party security force – either led by the UN, the AU or IGAD itself – but this too was rejected by the parties, and particularly the government, as an affront to sovereignty. I note this not to claim credit for the mediation as originator of the idea; instead to show that the discussion is not new, nor is the opposition to the concept. After IGAD, this too was a question pondered at JMEC.
Now, are circumstances changed sufficiently to overcome the internal political impediments? Assume for a moment that the UN Security Council and/or the AU Peace and Security Council are able to quickly authorize a peace enforcement mission. The government of South Sudan would continue to resist any foreign intervention, as it has consistently with the concept of third-party force during the IGAD talks. Which returns to the question of a coercive intervention, with all the perils that entails.
Even if the government could be somehow persuaded or pressured, even if the circumstances changed to permit an intervention force in Juba, even if regional troops were somehow available quickly enough, in sufficient numbers, sufficiently equipped, the hard truth is that a political solution would still be needed.
Yesterday’s call of Alex de Waal, Naomi Pendle and Rachel Ibreck is sadly unrealistic: for an AU-led ‘peace enforcement mission to ensure the demilitarisation of South Sudanese towns and cities.’ Simply put, there are not enough soldiers in East Africa to pacify every town, or even every major town, in South Sudan. I can’t see an international military solution to what is fundamentally both a political and a military problem.
Politically, what next?
Broadly, there are four courses ahead for the parties: for one or both to conclude the agreement is dead and abrogate it, leading to war; for one or both to use recent events to make permanent their escape from commitments they never wanted (leading to the end of the agreement and probably continuation of the first scenario); to engage in new negotiations outside of ARCSS; or, to return, if only nominally and partially, to the ARCSS framework.
My view is that for internationals to dismiss the agreement as irrelevant or unsalvageable at this stage would only play into the hands of those hardliners that seek continued military confrontation. Juba was a wake-up call, but those in Wau or Yambio or Torit are already seeing the implications of warmongers gaining the upper hand.
The complete collapse of the Agreement at this point would be catastrophic, with a new crisis of displacement, even more people going hungry, and any idea of widespread reconciliation and reconstruction almost impossible for the foreseeable future. This means, for the time being, that there still need to be efforts to work with and engage Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, much as I would love to join my friends in calling for both men to depart the scene.
Why? Because, unfortunately, both men can make things a hell of a lot worse, and, at this point, the conditions for a voluntary exit of either man do not exist; nor do the conditions exist for a departure enforced by the region or the AU.
The ceasefires declared on the evening of July 11 by Salva and Riek, which have to date held, demonstrate that these two men still have influence, power, and control over their forces. It may be an uneasy and temporary respite; but that is still preferable to a full-blooded war. Yes, both men are guilty of terrible things, by commission and omission. But both men are only the most prominent of a much broader cast of political and military actors, none of whom will disappear voluntarily. It might sound callous to say that for this judgment to change, things would have to get much, much worse, but that is the likely truth. Even then, the removal of a sitting head of state is by no means a course of action that would be easily pursued.
This too, is not a new discussion. In August 2014, the possibility of excluding one or both men from power was raised, amongst regional heads of state. After much discussion, they could only agree to exclude Riek, at that time out of government and bearing the label of ‘rebel’. Such a consensus could possibly be achieved again. But would that solve the problem or bring peace? I wish it was that easy.
As deeply unhappy though we are with the cast of characters in leading roles, it is precisely because South Sudan is stuck, for the time being, with these men that the political arrangements which now hang by a thread cannot be allowed to fail entirely. It is undeniable that the agreement has flaws and that significant responsibility for those flaws rests with the mediators, and therefore by extension with the IGAD member states. However, looking to dismantle the agreement is easy. Focusing the blame on external actors is also easy. If the transitional government collapses, and the peace agreement becomes defunct, and another war becomes virtually guaranteed, there may not be any quick way out. Someone will try to pick up the pieces in a future mediation in 2018 or thereabouts.
By then, we may all be resigned to South Sudan being yet another country in permanent crisis, in permanent transition, and essentially unsolvable.
None of this is inevitable. But it will take informed and rapid action – both military and political – for further crisis to be averted. If this doesn’t work, South Sudan could be condemned to another generation of war. It really is that bad.
Negotiating the release of eleven men held in Juba has consumed a great deal of the time and focus of mediators. Despite the entreaties of diplomats shuttling between Addis, Juba and Jonglei, the detention of the Eleven remains a sticking point between Riek Machar and Salva Kiir. But a successful negotiation to secure their release will not solve the crisis, and it will not return the peace. The danger now is that too much of the mediators’ political capital is expended on a goal that is only a means to further negotiations, rather than an end in itself, and work towards a lasting settlement remains a lesser priority.
Khartoum may have once backed Riek, but Riek also once betrayed Khartoum. Interests are not fixed over time. Today’s paradox is that while Khartoum has enjoyed and encouraged some instability in South Sudan, even after independence, too much instability in South Sudan hurts Khartoum’s interests. An existential threat to the government in Juba (much like an existential threat to the government in Khartoum) brings for the other side destabilising uncertainty, the possible retraction of existing commitments on oil, trade and cooperation, and security complications in the borderlands.