On July 8, 2018, African mediation succeeded in encouraging all parties to the five-year conflict in South Sudan to sign a new power-sharing agreement. However, there are doubts as to whether this agreement will form the necessary foundation for a comprehensive settlement, having been reached under extensive foreign pressure rather than organically with the full conviction of the warring factions.

Motives for negotiations

The conflict in South Sudan erupted in December 2013 against a backdrop of political rivalry among the various factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). These warring factions were divided between two basic allegiances: to the government led by Salva Kiir Mayardit and the opposition led by Riek Machar. Since then, the country has seen a number of peace agreements undermined at different stages, including the power-sharing agreement signed in Addis Ababa on August 18, 2015.

The recent round of talks, sponsored by the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD), the European Union (EU) and the ‘troika’ (Norway, the UK and the US), began in June 2018 in Addis Ababa before moving to Khartoum and Entebbe, Uganda. It concluded with a resolution by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the leaders of the struggle – including asset freezes, a travel ban and the referral of human rights violations in South Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – unless a comprehensive settlement was reached by the end of July 2018. The US and the EU have also threatened to impose similar penalties, to end economic assistance and mobilise neighbouring countries to intensify the imposition of penalties.

These decisions have compelled the warring factions to resume negotiations, spurred on by the deteriorating social and economic conditions, the absence of any decisive military victory, and growing concerns that the fighting may spread to all southern provinces. The number of refugees has now exceeded 2.5 million and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that 5.3 million people in South Sudan are at risk of dying from starvation.

The Entebbe Agreement: Challenges to a Comprehensive Settlement

The Khartoum Declaration was signed by the four main parties to the conflict: the government of South Sudan led by Salva Kiir Mayardit; Riek Machar as a representative of the opposition faction in the SPLM; representatives of former detainees; and opposition political parties. The declaration called for an immediate ceasefire, the disarmament of warring militias, the formation of an interim government, the creation of a national army and police force, the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the oil industry, and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

This declaration paved the way for the signing of the Entebbe Agreement, which included new power-sharing arrangements. Four vice presidents were appointed – Machar being the premier – the number of minsters was increased from 30 to 45, and the seats in parliament rose to 150 (Machar received 10 cabinet portfolios and 100 seats in parliament while the other opposition factions shared the remaining cabinet and parliamentary seats).

Views diverged on the potential for the new agreement to achieve a comprehensive settlement in South Sudan. Some analysts were optimistic about Sudan and Uganda’s sponsorship of the accord because they are the most knowledgeable, entangled and affected by the conflict. The accord also covers the resumptions of oil exports and other economic issues that have historically hindered improving economic conditions in the south.

The agreement, which enjoys international and regional sponsorship that ensures its implementation, has also called for national reconstruction. The Security Council resolution on July 13, 2018 to impose an embargo on arms sales to the country is also a step in the right direction toward its implementation.

However, most analyses raise doubts about the possibility of implementing the accord, citing a number of challenges such as constant violations of the ceasefire, the difficulty of disarmament (because weapons are widespread in the country) and the ambiguity surrounding the timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces. These analyses point out that the agreement is a tactical move that focuses on the symptoms of the struggle rather than its causes.

A more significant challenge is the absence of trust among the warring parties and their unwillingness to accept one another. This was evident in their failure to agree on Machar’s future residence and the opposition’s rejection of various terms in the new power-sharing agreement. Moreover, the parliament was quick to approve the extension of Mayardit’s presidential term until 2021 to restrict Machar during the planned transitional period in which the peace agreement is to be implemented.

Possible trajectories for settlement

The conflict in the south may follow one of the following trajectories following the Entebbe agreement:

  1. Peaceful settlement: this is possible, given the fact that dissent is not unusual in newly-established states, which often lack established political parties or experience in state management and governance, and are usually riven with competition to control national wealth. Moreover, the continued struggle in this country is not in the interests of neighboring states, which fear its negative consequences. Furthermore, the US – which strongly supported the secession of the South – will not tolerate the continuation of a conflict that has such a negative impact on Washington’s agenda in the region. This also goes for China, which is one of South Sudan’s significant trade partners.
  2. Fragile peace: this may occur as a result of a balance of power between the two main parties and their inability to win the conflict militarily. Should this be the case, the two sides will divide control over strategic cities and national wealth – particularly oil, the primary reserves of which are located in Al Nuwair-controlled areas. This may help fund offensive operations, depending on how long reserves last.
  3. All-out civil war: this may occur if political differences continue and peaceful settlement is further complicated by the emergence of ethnic alliances that back one or other side to the conflict. Under such circumstances, military confrontations may spread across the country, leading to all-out civil war.

The likelihood of this last scenario emerging is enhanced by the fact that the Al Nuwair tribes to which Machar belongs believe they are fighting to defend their material assets and political future. They reject Mayardit’s dominance over the ruling party and will never forget their fellow ethnic Nuwairs who were killed at the hands of the Dinka ethnic group, particularly given their strict tribal traditions that reject defeat in battle and the principle of financial compensation.

Therefore, the list of losers will probably include many parties – most notably the population. Moreover, Northern Sudan will suffer heavy losses as a result of a freeze in negotiations with South Sudan, an interruption in oil production, an influx of refugees, and the possible involvement of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement’s northern branch in the conflict to support Machar. Moreover, the situation will adversely affect the economies of other neighboring states such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda owing to diminishing trade with South Sudan and the return of their expatriate labor force. As for Egypt, progress in water cooperation projects with South Sudan will stall (resulting in events similar to the cancellation of the Jonglei Canal project in 1983).

In light of these facts, all three trajectories seem plausible. However, the second appears to be more probable; i.e. a fragile peace wherein the warring parties divide control of the country. Global and regional powers will not allow an all-out civil war to develop in the country. Nonetheless, Southern leaders will continue to act as the figureheads of ethnic groups rather than popular representatives. This will perpetuate a zero-sum game in which participants either win or lose everything, restricting South Sudan to little more than a legal construct rather than a genuine entity on the ground.


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