Negotiating a Settlement in South Sudan: Peace and Power

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Jun 16th, 2014
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By Andreas Hirblinger

Inclusivity Will Fix It

The peace negotiations for South Sudan could resolve the crisis only through a “genuine and inclusive political dialogue”, [1] according to Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom, recently speaking on behalf of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD). This echoes current international thinking within the talks currently underway in Addis Ababa. Inclusivity however is only one factor necessary for achieving a successful settlement. The type of peace which the talks will deliver also depends on the relations of power at the negotiation table.

A Stalemate? Political, Humanitarian and Military Dimensions

Serious negotiations require a stalemate that hurts in one kind or another: a situation in which all factions have little to win, but a lot to lose. However, the military situation has remained fluid in the past months. While Kiir could rely on continued military support from Yoweri Musevini of Uganda, Machar could gamble on the strategic benefits of the rainy season and the promises of waging a low-intensity war against an army, which while better equipped, would be unable to move heavy vehicles and machinery.

Concerns have been mounting about the increasing regionalisation of the conflict, which has already increased tensions among neighbouring states. IGAD plays a central role in the current negotiations. However, rivalries between IGAD member states, in particular Uganda and Sudan, and Ethiopia and Eritrea,[2] threaten to undermine its mediating position. Moreover, a unilateral military intervention of any of the member states would lead not only to an increasingly complex situation on the battlefield, but an aggravation of the military and political conflict. If additional regional players intervene militarily, both Kiir and Machar will loose much of their ability to steer the course of conflict to their liking.

Intensified efforts to negotiate a settlement make it clear that important international players have lost patience with the two warring factions. The two adversaries thus increasingly have reasons to worry about their standing in the international arena. The recommitment to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in May was a result of the rapidly mounting international pressure, including visits by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon to Juba, and the threat of sanctions against the key protagonists of the crisis. Reports about mass atrocities, and calls for investigations into crimes against humanity have arguably played an important role to present the parties with a more sober outlook on the chances of achieving political victory primarily through military means. International pressure was also an effort to reduce the humanitarian impact of the crisis. Initiatives in late April came at a critical moment, as US and UN bodies pointed to the impact of the conflict on the planting season and increased food insecurity.[3] Only through an immediate cessation of hostilities, could humanitarian access be improved, and the risk of famine be reduced.[4]

These efforts also provide a starting point to resolving the crisis politically, through the resumption of peace talks. However, while the current international pressure has sufficed to bring the parties to the negotiation table, a successful settlement depends on getting the relations of power between them right.

The CPA Revisited: Challenges of Inclusivity

The current conflict discloses the failure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to provide the grounds for a peaceful political order in South Sudan. The CPA was primarily meant to address the conflict between the North and the South. However, the transitional governance arrangements in South Sudan, which crumbled as the crisis unfolded in late 2013, were also derived from the provisions of the CPA. The decay of the country’s political order therefore begs important questions as to the nature of negotiations. In hindsight, the CPA negotiations paid too little attention to frictions between the various South Sudanese factions. As a consequence, the exclusivity of the CPA negotiations led to a transitional order not robust enough to accommodate and regulate the competing demands of the South Sudanese leadership, nor able to address the distrust between the different factions of the SPLM/A. Nearly 10 years after the signing of the agreement, this has had its cost.

Many observers have voiced concerns over a transitional arrangement that would essentially set the country back to the pre-crisis situation, with Kiir and Machar heading up a Government of National Unity. This would not only beg important questions as to how any new arrangements would guarantee peace any better than previous ones, but would also send the problematic message that reacting to a political crisis through violence, causing death and destruction to thousands, is an acceptable strategy for maintaining power. Rather than solving the underlying causes of conflict, it would reify the political divisions in the country and approve the violent means used by leadership to address them.

Alternative proposals however, indicate ways to reduce the focus on the personal struggle between Kiir and Machar and thereby discourage rent-seeking behaviour. One such proposal is a technical transitional government without either Kiir or Machar. By way of accommodation, the two could be given a monitoring role in the implementation of the peace agreement. [5] This idea has gained substantial support from South Sudanese civil society groups and foreign governments, but has not gained support from Salva Kiir’s government.

Local Deals or a Comprehensive Process?

Negotiations untarnished by personal power struggles are difficult to realise, given the military capabilities of those involved on the battlefield. While not a party to the armed conflict, the position of the high-ranking members of the SPLA known as the ‘former detainees’ is of central importance.[6] While there is no doubt that they also have an interest in restoring their own political power, their role in the negotiations could change the dynamics of negotiation. Joining the negotiations as an independent political party, the group would push the talks towards a multi-party process. If, however, they were co-opted by either of the two sides, the risk that a settlement would primarily feed a power sharing deal between Kiir’s and Machar’s factions would increase. While the latter provides the opportunity for simple trade offs, a multi-party process does this to a lesser extent and requires the parties to accommodate their demands through institutional arrangements.

There are indications that Kiir’s government prefers clear fault-lines over complexity. Recent developments in Jonglei State are indicative that co-opting rivals through local deals may be a strategy of Salva Kiir’s government. Parallel to the first Kiir–Machar meeting in Addis, the government negotiated and signed, on 9 May 2014, a peace agreement with David Yau Yau’s South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A) – Cobra Faction. The deal calls for the establishment of the Greater Pibor Area and concedes greater autonomy to the region. These developments will lead to a reform of the governance arrangements in Jonglei state and are thus encouraging for a political settlement to the crisis in the state. The signing of the deal however also has the effect of effacing the underlying causes of the insurgency in Jonglei State from the current negotiations in Addis. Revisiting the dynamics in the new area of ‘Greater Pibor’, and including stakeholders such as the SSDM/A – Cobra Faction would have made for a deeper and more comprehensive analysis of South Sudan’s underlying governance challenges.

Indeed, local deals may even reduce the chances for a comprehensive peace. This is because by conceding authority in specific regions, Kiir may be able to maintain his hold on power by alleviating symptoms of the crisis and manipulating local power dynamics, while making only limited changes to the system of government. Recent reports suggest that as a result of the agreement signed with the SSDM/A, the SPLA might now be able to use the territory around Pibor as an additional corridor to fight the SPLA-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). Blurring the lines between a negotiated and a victor’s peace, Kiir’s government seems to have limited willingness to win peace through political reforms so long as this can be done through tilting the balance of power through paying off and appeasing individual factions.

Balancing Power

The current schedule of negotiations suggests that security arrangements and political arrangements would be discussed separately, with the former involving only Kiir’s and Machar’s team, and the latter open to third parties as well. Of course, political and military power can hardly be kept separate, and groups such as the “former detainees” will have limited capacity to play an independent role given they are not party to the armed conflict.

For the mediators and other international actors, their delicate task is to make sure that not only those who have the greatest capacity to wreak havoc will have a say at the negotiation table. It is pivotal for a successful settlement that third parties are willing and able to take an independent position, and in this vein encourage a discussion about transitional arrangements as independent as possible from the increasingly polarized struggle between Kiir and Machar.

[1] http://cewarn.org/attachments/article/257/Press%20Release-%20(7-6-2014)%20-%20Inclusive%20Peace%20Process%20for%20South%20Sudan%20Begins%20(1).pdf

[2] http://www.issafrica.org/iss-today/the-crisis-in-south-sudan-a-game-of-regional-chess

[3] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11378.doc.htm; http://www.fews.net/east-africa/sudán-del-sur/food-security-outlook/fri-2014-03-28

[4] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11391.doc.htm

[5][5] http://www.newsudanvision.com/articles–publisher/2794-the-alternative-proposal

[6] http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article51021

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