Peace in South Sudan? Not without a stronger state and reconciliation


As warring sides battle it out on the ground, the leaders in South Sudan seem to have come to a peace deal after almost five years of fighting.

South Sudan was plunged into war in December 2013, barely two years after it achieved independence from Sudan. A political disagreement between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar, who is set to be reinstated under the terms of the peace deal – exploded into a military confrontation.

The conflict soon expanded to include other armed groups while the president’s policy of creating new states – first 28 then 32 – led to fighting amongst the different armed groups and more violence against civilians. This in turn led to further outbursts of local level violence in the then Upper Nile, Bentiu, Equatoria and Bahr El Ghazal.

After averting famine last year, the food insecurity outlook in South Sudan has never been so dire. This is partly because the situation in the South is still extremely fragile. The mass displacement of people continues, forcing farmers from their fields during key times in the planting season.

About 7.1 million people – that’s more than half of the population – is estimated to be facing severe food insecurity. This means that their access to food is severely limited. One million people are facing emergency acute food insecurity, meaning that they experience extreme food consumption gaps, resulting in very high levels of acute malnutrition, and even death.

The Khartoum Declaration which was signed in June was a promising start but those who know South Sudan well, will know that its unlikely to last.

South Sudan’s leaders, regional partners, the international community, and the Troika (Norway, the UK, and the US), need to shift from a short-term approach to a more sustainable one. This should take several things into consideration including South Sudan’s lack of political capacity, the country’s political and ethnic grievances, its lack of institutions, and the general failure of long term conflict mitigation efforts.

Deteriorating situation

While the total number of deaths has almost flat lined since 2014, the delivery of humanitarian assistance has become increasingly difficult. Armed groups have obstructed the delivery of aid. This has led to the humanitarian situation deteriorating rapidly. The situation could be made worse by a reduction in donor funding from countries like the US, which is currently one of South Sudan’s biggest financial benefactors.

Adding to this problem is the fact that over the past two months, 26 aid workers have been abducted by armed groups. According to the UN at least 100 aid workers have been killed in the last five years.

In addition to the humanitarian crisis South Sudanese have also battled a high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence. The exact number of victims might never be known because of the stigma attached to reporting these horrific crimes. But available reports present a major concern. A UNICEF-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism recorded 285 incidents of sexual violence against children since December 2013, and estimated hundreds of other incidents of rape and sexual assault against children since the beginning of the conflict.

A report released by the Secretary General on Conflict Related Sexual Violence, through the United Nations Mission in Sudan documented 577 cases of sexual violence in 2016. A February 2018 UN Human Rights Commission report collected evidence against more than 40 officials whom they believe are accountable for war crimes (including sex crimes). Since the release of the report no one has been held accountable.

Gender-based violence in South Sudan is frequently met with exemption because of social gender norms which place women under men’s control and stigmatise victims of sexual violence. The peace deal should ensure that every kind of violence is recognised and dealt with to the full extent of the law.

What’s needed for peace

The Khartoum Declaration promised a permanent ceasefire, reforms in the security sector, rehabilitation of oil wells, and the improvement of the South Sudan infrastructure.

But unless sustainable plans are put in place to guide the world’s newest failed state, South Sudan will continue to sign agreements with no real outcomes. For peace to hold, international mediators and South Sudanese leaders must openly discuss the root causes of the conflict.

And the peace process will have to be fully embraced and owned by South Sudan’s leaders and the South Sudanese people. Moves like the South Sudan government’s proposed bill to extend President Salva Kiir’s term for three years will only undermine peace talks and agreements with opposition forces. This, in turn, will heighten the potential for renewed fighting.

The new approach also requires leaders to be made accountable not just to one another but to the South Sudanese people.

The UN deputy’s chief has said that the body ‘will not give up on looking for peace for South Sudan’. These comments are welcomed. But peace cannot be achieved unless violations against civilians are met with a willingness to prosecute those found guilty of crimes against humanity.

It requires willingness to reform the security sector, to devolve power to states and to build and strengthen institutions where none have existed.

Finally, it will require an inclusive approach to peace for all. This will require localised support for local peace building efforts, capacity building and long term investment in local economies to put the country back to work.

Above all it will require that the South Sudanese people reconcile their differences, forgive each other, and heal together. Without these key ingredients it is highly unlikely that peace will hold.