What do South Sudanese See as the Way Forward?
It has now been three years since violence first broke out in the world’s newest nation. What began as a fight between different factions of the Presidential Guard on December 15, 2013, quickly grew into a full-blown ethnic conflict that rapidly spread across the country.
Mass atrocities in the form of crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and likely genocide have occurred in the years that followed. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 300,000 people have been killed and more than 2.3 million South Sudanese have been displaced in the three years of fighting. Multiple attempts to broker a peace deal have failed.
As we mark the third anniversary of this completely man-made, and 100% avoidable disaster, this is a good time to take stock of what some of the South Sudanese actors internally and externally are saying, and what proposals are being made to bring peace to South Sudan. The following is by no means an exhaustive list of all statements or proposals, but is meant to be a snapshot of the various sectors involved in the conflict.
President Salva Kiir – Leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM):
The President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, in his address to the nation stated that he was “deeply concerned about the current direction our country is taking.” He told the South Sudanese people, “As long as I am your President, I will not allow the suffering of our people to continue and I will not also allow this country to fall apart.”
Unless “our people” refers to the Dinka (the ethnic group that President Kiir belongs to), it seems extremely disingenuous to claim that he will not end the suffering of his people while his government continues to carry out mass atrocities across the country.
Kiir transcends into full-blown cognitive dissonance when he states that the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) has “settled political and military aspects of the conflict.”
The reality is that the ARCSS has fully collapsed. The main component of the agreement, the establishment of a transitional government of national unity (TGNU), completely broke down in July 2016 when Riek Machar—the other signatory to the agreement and leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO)—was run out of the country after being targeted by forces loyal to the government. Machar was chased across the border into neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, evading ground forces and assaults by helicopter gunships.
Shortly thereafter, President Kiir installed Taban Deng Gai to replace Riek Machar as First Vice President; a move that the SPLM-IO has said violates the peace agreement, calling Riek Machar the “legitimate First Vice President.”
In his address, President Kiir has suggested an inclusive national dialogue to bring peace to the country. President Kiir stated that participants in the dialogue will have their safety guaranteed; including opposition voices. The problem with this proposition is that the government cannot claim to be able to provide protection while simultaneously carrying out mass atrocities against civilians, deporting international journalists, silencing local journalists, and expelling humanitarian aid workers for speaking out against government abuses.
The President closed his statement by asking for the people of South Sudan to forgive him for any mistakes that he may have made. The commission of mass atrocities is not something that can simply be forgiven. The orchestrators and perpetrators of the violence in South Sudan must be held accountable for their actions, and that includes President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Without accountability, other actors in South Sudan and around the world will be emboldened when they see that the international community is willing to look the other way while they wholesale slaughter their people.
Riek Machar – Leader of the SPLM-IO (Former Vice President/First Vice President):
Riek Machar’s statement on the third anniversary of the conflict, opened with an explanation for the opposition’s uprising claiming over 20,000 Nuer were “indiscriminately massacred in Juba” on December 16th 2013. While the targeted killings of Nuer in Juba has been widely documented and reported, the numbers Machar claims may be a bit high; although no one has been counting the dead.
Riek Machar also accused the government of committing genocide, particularly against people in Equatoria, Unity, and Western Bahr el Ghazal. Differing from his opponent, Machar stated that in order for “a national dialogue process to succeed peace must prevail first and be accompanied by a process of accountability and justice.” The statement reiterated the SPLM-IO’s calls for a hybrid court to “try the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
One cannot help but wonder if Machar will be willing to submit himself and other SPLM-IO leaders to the jurisdiction of a hybrid court if it were established.
Since the statement was made, the opposition’s spokesperson has reportedly said that the SPLM-IO would join a national dialogue process if President Kiir is not leading it.
Given that Riek Machar is still in South Africa, it is unclear when if ever he will return to South Sudan. Although he is outside the country, Machar still retains control of the SPLM-IO and, up until now, the SPLM-IO has steadfastly supported their leader. It remains to be seen whether the SPLM-IO will shift support to another leader inside South Sudan in the future and what that would do to any potential peace process.
SPLM Leaders – Former Political Detainees (SPLM-FPD):
The SPLM-FPD has released “A New Roadmap to Rescue and Restore Hope in South Sudan.” The Roadmap outlines the historical background of the conflict, critiques the ARCSS and the status quo, offers possible scenarios in the future, and suggestions for “crafting a new dispensation.”
Their critiques of the ARCSS and the status quo clearly stated that the “Kiir/Taban formula has not worked and stands no chance of delivering in the future. Taban Deng Gai does not command the support or even the respect of the Nuer constituency which is the stronghold of SPLM (IO).” The statement continued to say, the “Kiir/Taban formula cannot deliver peace no matter how much time you give them.”
The Roadmap’s suggestions for moving forward seeks to find a middle ground between what the SPLM-FPD sees as the two extremes of possible scenarios: the decent into genocide or trusteeship by the United Nations.
The SPLM-FPD suggests that in order to move towards peace, an all-stakeholders roundtable must be convened in Juba, but only when the safety and security of all those present can be guaranteed by the proposed Regional Protection Force. Participants in the roundtable should include: “a wide cross section of South Sudanese society, with the participation of regional and international partners such as IGAD+ plus, AU, UN, Troika etc.” The goal of the roundtable would be to reach a consensus and establish a transitional caretaker hybrid administration for the country, made up of a local and international component.
Locally, the transitional administration would be responsible for creating an executive made up of technocrats and a legislature of a lower and upper house. The international component would seek support for capacity building and institution strengthening of the judiciary, financial management, oil revenue management, and security sector reform (SSR).
The Roadmap states that there may be a realistic transitional period of three to five years, but does not mention what will happen at the end of the transitional period. Would a new constitution be created before or after the end of the transitional period? Would elections take place? What happens to the technocrats serving in the role of the executive? These questions and more must be answered.
Anataban Campaign – A youth-led peace movement in South Sudan:
In a statement from the Anataban campaign, the grassroots civil society youth movement is calling for a ceasefire in order to allow for “a conducive environment for fruitful dialogue, reiterating the need for the inclusion of youth, women and other sectors of the South Sudan society to guarantee all voices are expressed, most so the voice of those at grass root level.” Some would argue that the ARCSS lacked inclusivity, especially of the youth even though the youth make up the large majority of the population of South Sudan.
Anataban reiterated the importance for a national dialogue, but only when a safe space can be ensured to allow all stakeholders to “freely express themselves.”
The group also emphasized “the need to expedite the formation of the hybrid court” in order to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and to pave the way for a lasting peace and reconciliation.
What does this all mean?
After three years of conflict one thing is undeniable: the status quo is not going to bring peace to South Sudan. It appears as if most South Sudanese are supportive of some kind of national dialogue process, but in order for such a process to have any hope of succeeding a complete ceasefire must first be reached and guarantees must be made to protect all participants in the process.
The current conditions in South Sudan are just not conducive to allow for such a process. Hosting a national dialogue outside of South Sudan is a possibility, but definitely not an ideal situation. If security forces in and around Juba could be effectively disarmed and demobilized, and a more robust international peacekeeping force were deployed to temporarily provide security and stability, it may be possible to host a national dialogue in Juba. But, given the current political and security situation in South Sudan, that prospect is tenuous at best.
With the government still engaging in active fighting, a national dialogue process could serve to just buy some time until the government could gain ground militarily. It also could serve as an opportunity to placate the international community and stave off possible coercive actions like the proposed arms embargo and sanctions by the United States. If there is a genuine attempt to establish a national dialogue process, the fighting must first stop, and security must be guaranteed. National dialogue and military offensives cannot occur simultaneously, nor can South Sudan afford another exclusive process.