On 13 March 2020, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the President of South Sudan, issued a presidential decree to appoint members of the Transitional Government of National Unity in accordance with the terms of the peace deal. This development paved the way for the debate between those who see it as a real step towards the implementation of the peace deal and the restoration of security and stability and those who consider it a mere response to external pressures, an attempt to buy time, and the deferral of an imminent clash because of which the country could relapse into overall civil war.

Signing the comprehensive peace deal

The four conflicting parties in South Sudan had signed a comprehensive peace deal in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in September 2018. The government, led by Salva Kiir, agreed with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by Riek Machar, opposition parties and representatives of former detainees on power-sharing by the formation of a transitional government to be led by a president and five vice-presidents so that Machar would be the first vice-president, together with a ceasefire, disarming belligerent militias, building a national army and police force, the rehabilitation of the infrastructure and oilfields, and allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid.

It was decided that the implementation of the deal would pass through two stages: a pre-transitional stage that would last for eight months during which committees and commissions on the implementation of the deal would be set up, followed by a transitional stage of 3.5 years, during which all other terms of the deal would be implemented. However, numerous obstacles prevented the formation of the government and the launch of the transitional stage, which was postponed more than once since May 2019.

Efforts to implement the peace deal

Despite the formation of the necessary committees and commissions to implement the peace deal, numerous obstacles remained in place that delayed its implementation: no ceasefire was achieved, most efforts to rehabilitate the infrastructure and oilfields failed, the Technical Committee for Border Demarcation, with the participation of representatives of the African Union, failed, armed clashes and ethnic violence continued, even new armed movements were formed, mainly: the National Democratic Front, the South Sudan National Movement, the National Salvation Front, and the Federal Democratic Front.

At the humanitarian level, waves of asylum and displacement continued as reports revealed that nearly 400 thousand lives were lost during the war and a third of the population were displaced as of January 2020. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned against the possibility that 5.3 million people from the South were exposed to death from starvation in view of the difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid to them.

The main difference lied in determining the number of states in the country and the mechanism of border demarcation between them, as the peace deal make no mention of this matter. In this connection, some suggested the reduction of the number of states from 32 to 21, others put forward the return to the original number, namely 10 states, with their provinces. Yet a third group considered the possibility of holding a referendum to obtain the opinion of citizens on the most appropriate number of states, which was rejected, particularly after Salva Kiir sought to set up a new committee to decide on the matter, as opposed to the independent committee stipulated in the peace deal.

In the meantime, Riek Machar insisted on the implementation of the security arrangements first, particularly disarmament, the integration of fighters, and the formation of a force for his personal protection in Juba as he refused that this task be assigned to a regional force to be formed by neighbouring countries. Thus, Machar continued to reside abroad which confirms that he has not forgotten the assassination attempt against him which led him to flee at night from Juba to the Democratic Republic of Congo and from there to the Sudan in August 2016, after which the former peace deal signed in August 2015 collapsed.

Determination of the number of states and formation of the transitional government

 Regional and international efforts were successful in convincing Salva Kiir, on 15 February, to respond to the main demands of the opposition, namely the return to a federal system that would divide the country into thirteen states. This contributed to lifting the main obstacle to the formation of the new government. In this context, the statement of the Presidency of South Sudan underlined that the reduction of the number of states may not be the best option for the people of the South, although it is considered necessary to achieve peace and the unity of the country. On the other hand, Machar agreed to be sworn in as first vice-president on 22 February 2020.

These developments paved the way for the issuance of a presidential decree to form the transitional government on 13 March, where the cabinet consisted of 35 ministers, with 18 ministries allocated to Salva Kiir’s team and 10 ministries to Machar’s. The remaining seven portfolios would be distributed among the other opposition factions. It was also agreed to complete consultations regarding the appointment of state governors and members of the legislative assembly as the peace deal stipulated the increase of seats in the national parliament to 550, distributed as 55 percent to the government, 25 percent to Machar’s group and 20 percent to the rest of the opposition.

Prospects of implementation of the peace deal

In light of the current facts, the prospects of implementation of the remaining terms of the peace deal swing between two possibilities and views: the first suggests that the implementation of the deal would fail and that fighting would be resumed, while the other expects the success of the deal and the fulfilment of the future terms of the transitional process.

The first possibility: failure of the deal and the resumption of fighting

Advocates of this opinion base their position on the following three foundations:

  • The peace deal was merely a tactical move driven by external pressure, particularly the threat by Washington and the European Union to impose sanctions on frontline leaders in South Sudan, including banning them from travel to the United States and Europe and freezing their assets, in addition to the threat by the United Nations Security Council to refer human rights violations in the South to the International Criminal Court.
  • The formation of the government mainly aims at avoiding the escalation of the conflict rather than being a response to the convictions of the conflicting parties who lack mutual trust and the capability to work as a team.
  • The implementation of the deal entails other measures, mainly: disarmament, dismissal of former fighters and their integration into a national army and police force.

Based on all the above, advocates of this opinion believe that this deal might meet the same fate as earlier ones, whose chances ranged between stumbling beginnings and failed endings, which is why it is likely that control of the country will continue to be shared among the conflicting factions.

Second possibility: implementation of the deal and passing the transitional stage

Advocates of this view believe that there are indications in favour of the implementation of the peace deal and passing the transitional stage to reach the formulation of a new constitution for the country and holding general elections, mainly:

  • Conflict in the South Sudan has reached maturity after the conflicting parties failed to decide the conflict militarily since its outbreak in December 2013 and became increasingly convinced that the time has come to settle it peacefully.
  • President Salva Kiir has shown some kind of flexibility with respect to reducing the number of states and pledged to allocate a hundred million dollars to implement the security terms and provide security and stability in the country pending the preparation of the joint army. He underlined that the changes witnessed by the South made peace a strategic objective, and called on all refugees and the displaced to return to the homeland. On the other hand, Machar underlined that the remaining issues and subjects will be resolved through dialogue within the national unity government.
  • The deal resolves the problem of the resumption of oil exports and other economic issues that continued to hinder the improvement of economic and developmental conditions in southern Sudan and the launch of the reconstruction process. It also enjoys an international and regional patronage that seeks to implement it.

Nevertheless, it is most likely that the deal will stumble and eventually fail for the following considerations:

  • The firmness of the underlying loyalties of ethnic groups at the expense of the overall loyalty to the national state, and rejection by leaders of the conflicting factions of a real power-sharing, their insistence on acting as leaders of ethnic groups and not as statesmen, and their management of the political process as a zero-sum game in which the winner gets all the benefits while the loser gets nothing.
  • The existence of five vice-presidents represents a peculiar case among countries of the world and increases the possibility of overlapping and conflict of duties among them in practice, although the peace deal theoretically determines and separates their scope of duty.
  • The government and the opposition share control over strategic cities and the country’s wealth which provides the logistical and financial capabilities to cover the expenses of fighting in case it is renewed. This is confirmed by the insistence of each party on keeping its weapons, inadequate cooperation with the disarmament committees, and the deferral of the integration of rebel forces into the government armed forces. In fact, there were repeated mutual accusations lately that each party is seeking to recruit more fighters.
  • Lack of consensus between members of the United Nations Security Council and neighbouring countries of South Sudan on the imposition of an arms embargo on the southern forces and the uncertainty with regard to the schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops, which reveals the extent of division and conflict of interests between sponsors of the deal.
  • The hesitation by international quarters to provide the necessary financial support to implement the deal because of fear from the prevailing corruption among leaders of the South who could misuse the financial aid to transfer it to their personal accounts abroad or allocate it to the purchase of weapons.

* Director of the African Research Centre at Cairo University.

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