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Why South Sudanese adversaries signed a peace deal that they do not want

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir signs a peace agreement in the capital Juba, on August 26, 2015. Reuters/Jok Solomun

On paper, the South Sudanese government led by President Salva Kiir and its armed opposition, commanded by former vice president Riek Machar, have agreed to declare permanent ceasefire.

They also agreed to establish a transitional government, collaboratively work towards a permanent constitution and legislatively establish reconciliation and peace-building institutions. All these are stipulated in a peace agreement that both the government and the rebels have reluctantly agreed to sign.

But, fighting has already resumed and senior military officers have publicly shared their disapproval of the deal. Given the well-known problems of underdeveloped military discipline and command structure in both armed groups, the imminent disruption of this peace agreement’s implementation is highly probable.

It does not help that neither party says this was a reasonable compromise. Kiir said the agreement looked like a roadmap for regime change. Machar argued that the agreement gave Kiir’s government the “lion’s share” of everything. Press reports speculate that Machar’s two generals, Peter Gatdet and Gathoth Gatkuoth, fell out with him because of differences over the deal. Forces loyal to the two generals remain an unpredictable presence.

So why did the government and the opposition, who are unhappy with the content of the agreement, sign it anyway? And what are the potential consequences of this induced peace accord?

Understanding the conflict

To answer that, we have to take note of one thing about the conflict. It resulted from power struggles within the ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The party-level issues have been addressed in a separate deal called the Arusha Proccess, which restored the situation as it was before.

The peace process, led by the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has largely been about restoring the status quo at the level of government, but it repeatedly failed over the last 20 months. Each failure seemed to trigger more intense military action and wide spread human rights violations of an outrageous nature.

It was unsurprising, therefore, when US President Barack Obama expressed extreme frustration on his recent visit to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Obama met with African leaders to discuss the South Sudanese conflict but deliberately excluded the parties to the conflict. The logic of this arrangement was made abundantly clear by the State Department. Obama was not there as a mediator, but as a coalition builder for peace.

The coalition Obama was trying to build worked because IGAD Plus, a brainchild of the International Crisis Group, consisting of IGAD countries plus the African Union, the US, China, the UK, Norway and the EU, took centre stage. Obama’s consultation with the “key stakeholders” (excluding South Sudanese) arrived at August 17 as the deadline for a peace agreement authorising permanent ceasefire within days.

A quick-fix ceasefire

This firm call for ceasefire has broad support in South Sudan and internationally. However, the deadline only gave everyone involved in negotiations about three weeks to resolve a 20-month-old conflict that has pre-independence roots.

How much time did the parties and the mediators have to really negotiate? My guess is not enough. Sustainable conflict resolution requires at least three things:

  • First, that the parties to conflict feel like the content of the peace agreement they sign is a reasonable, properly negotiated compromise;

  • Second, as a consequence of this (illusory or otherwise) they should be able to own it and sell it to their constituencies with phrases like, “this is a bad agreement but we signed it because…”; and

  • Third, the agreement itself should not pose obvious and publicly resisted threats to those who are supposed to sign and implement it.

The peace agreement that Machar and Kiir reluctantly signed violates all of these fundamental aspects of long-term resolution of violent conflict. So why did they sign it anyway?

There are three main drivers:

  • This particular war has no moral foundation and the people of South Sudan are tired of violence. Both parties are aware of this and want a way out of the cycles of violence;

  • War hurts the interests of all the “friends of South Sudan” – the US, China, the UK, Norway and the EU – and they can generate a lot of pressure;

  • The conduct of war has been increasingly raising difficult questions nobody wants to answer.

An uncertain future

These are immediate concerns that potentially contributed to the necessity of this quick way out of the conflict. The two most problematic provisions are institutions for implementing peace and reconciliation, namely the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) and the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. The JMEC will oversee the implementation of the agreement and the HCSS will prosecute human rights violators.

Both will be legislated and funded by the Transitional National Assembly of South Sudan but will assume supremacy over the national executive, legislature and judiciary. They will be led by non-South Sudanese with diplomatic immunity which means, once they are instituted, South Sudanese sovereignty will be curtailed. Kiir’s supporters have branded this a “trusteeship”. These provisions have the potential to turn public opinion against the agreement.

Another potential spoiler of peace lies in one provision of the hybrid court. The court will be empowered to indict anyone and such indictments would be tantamount to disqualification for pursuing any elected office towards the end of the transitional period. These provisions have the potential to undermine the agreement and therefore need to be revised to give peace a real chance.

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