Not for the first time, South Sudan appears on the International Crisis Group watch list of the world’s most volatile conflicts to watch. This is on top of climbing to second on Transparency International’s index of the most corrupt countries.
The world’s newest nation is bedevilled by multiple conflicts and faced with major challenges to establish peace and stability. The most recent UN mission report warns of a conflict that’s reached “worrying proportions”.
South Sudan is in the fourth year of open conflict sparked in December 2013 by the falling out between President Salva Kiir and his then former Vice-President Riek Machar. Fighting between forces loyal to both parties and bouts of ethnic fighting are expected to displace nearly 2 million people by the end of 2017. Close to 5 million people are projected to require food assistance between January and April 2017.
A resurgent wave of violence has taken hold since clashes erupted in the capital Juba in 2016. Opposition leader Riek Machar, who had returned from exile as Vice President under a regionally-brokered peace deal, was forced to flee again. He remains in exile.
Conflict and instability have since spread to previously unaffected areas in the Greater Equatoria and Greater Bahr-El-Ghazal regions of the country. In late January this year, the Upper Nile joined this list of states under siege.
Malakal, the country’s second largest city, has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks. Contacts on the ground say the fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and a SPLA-iO splinter group lasted until Sunday 28 January 2017. The city falls under the former state of Upper Nile (now the Eastern Nile).
Despite the fighting dying down, heavy gunfire was heard for several days afterwards into early February. The likelihood is that both sides are reinforcing their positions. While the situation in the Upper Nile remains highly unpredictable it’s highly unlikely that the government will sit by and allow this to continue.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Now is the time for the international community and regional partners to rapidly respond to the deteriorating situation in South Sudan.
Talk is cheap
The entry of more localised actors is evidence enough of the failure of the August 2015 peace agreement and a signal for renewed international action.
Two recent declarations point to renewed international involvement in some form or other. The first was the joint declaration of the African Union, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the UN in Addis Ababa.
They expressed support for a new round of shuttle diplomacy to ensure inclusivity in national dialogue and implementation of the 2015 peace agreement. However, they also voiced deep concerns over the continuing spread of fighting, and risk of inter-communal violence escalating into mass atrocities, and the dire humanitarian situation in South Sudan.
This statement was quickly followed by another from the Troika members – Norway, UK and US – supporting the joint declaration and its effort to further strengthen and enhance international cooperation in support of the South Sudan peace process.
But neither of these statements warned of any consequences for the internal actors most responsible for South Sudan’s slide into anarchy. There was no attempt to hold any of the parties accountable for the mass killings witnessed so far.
The lack of palpable international pressure on South Sudan is worrying. The deadline for deploying an additional 4000 troops to a regional protection forces passed on December 15 2016. This followed South Sudan government’s bold rejection of the UN Security Council authorisation of extra UN peacekeepers on the pretext that the security situation in the county had improved and the government can provide security and stability for the country and for its citizens.
The Security Council’s decision to block the imposition of an arms embargo on South Sudan in December 2016 is another sign of this weakness. It is far from clear whether the proposed regional protection force of 4000 would function without political and international support. Without political and international support, if deterrence fails and the RPF is required to engage in coercion or brute force, its 4,000 troops will be in no position to fight off the SPLA and could escalate the violence in Juba, and the country.
While the consolidation of power by the president strengthens his position in the capital and the region, it doesn’t create an opportunity to promote negotiations with existing and emerging armed opposition. The position by the president does not promote an environment of consolidated peace needed in the country.
Yet, despite the wide gulf that separates South Sudan’s government and opposition figures, there’s still a small window of opportunity to find peace. There’s still a chance to turn South Sudan away from the path of being a full failed state. This will require radical change in the government’s mindset before this moment can pass.
ECOWAS to the rescue
It’s also time that the African Union, the seven nation Intergovernmental Authority on Development and other regional and international guarantors of peace moved away from a culture of empty declarations to action.
There’s much to learn from – and admire – from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in the firmness and speed with which the election crisis in The Gambia was resolved.
Although it had a rocky start Ecowas now represents a regional block that’s strict about enforcing democratic norms. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development should learn from Ecowas and break away from the norms of turning a blind eye and play an active role in South Sudan.
Regional partners can start by placing the South Sudan crisis top of current priorities. The immediate aim should be to bring all parties to the conflict back to the negotiation table. That must include bringing the leaders of the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Army, better know as SPLA-iO, to the table.
The international community must provide the institutional support necessary to achieve this. This can be done be maximising the AU and UN good offices to assist the government. It must also be ready to provide backing for the strong sanctions that should be imposed on those in South Sudan who imperil its future.
This article was first published by the Conversation.