The bleakest future


A new conflict between President Salva Kiir and former President Reik Machar. While famine looms, more arms arrive, instead of victuals.

South Sudan is in the throes of a political and humanitarian crisis that only seems to get worse while finding a solution to the civil war that caused it is getting even harder. Even the last round of negotiations held in Addis Abeba between 17 and 23 May has failed.

In all probability the main cause of the stalemate is the goal that the IGAD – Inter Governmental Authority on Development, the regional organisation appointed by the international community to find a solution to the conflict – has set itself: the revival of the peace agreement signed in August 2015, which came unstuck in July 2016 when the Republican army, the SPLA, and that commanded by the main opposition group, the SPLA-IO, clashed for a number of days in the capital city, Juba. At the end of the fierce fighting almost nothing of the earlier agreement was left standing. The first deputy-president of the transition government and the head of the opposition, Riek Machar, were fleeing through the forests of the Equatoria region, hunted down by the SPLA with every means, to the extent that the conflict spread throughout the entire area, which up to then had managed to stay out of it, and led to hundreds of thousands of people heading towards the refugee camps in Uganda. In Juba, President Salva Kiir Mayardit appointed Taban Den Gai as first deputy-president and thus became the opposition’s representative in the transition government. Taban Den Gai had just resigned from the SPLM-IO owing to internal wrangling. Clearly an instrumental appointment that was accepted, rather cynically, by the international community, the guarantors of the 2015 agreements. This decision effectively means Machar is now an exile in South Africa.

But the tactic of ending the conflict by decapitating the opposition and co-opting a figurehead into the government turned out to flawed. The civil war, which up to then had witnessed the most fearsome incidents, if possible became even more atrocious, to the extent that over the last year the UN’s competent organisms have issued warnings about possible genocide, owing to the generalised use of sexual violence, the recruitment of minors to take part in the fighting, including the regular army, and other heinous actions. In recent weeks there’s been rising concern about a probable severe food shortage. Famine, averted at the last moment in the last years thanks to the efforts of international organisations, could hit hard this year. Most South Sudanese have run out of food supplies for some time now and don’t have sufficient resources to access the market seeing as the rampant inflation has meant prices have risen exponentially even for basic necessities. To compound all this, there is now little room for manoeuvre for humanitarian work as the situation on the ground has become much too dangerous. The number of NGO operatives who have lost their lives bringing aid to the population is now into the hundreds. Many have been kidnaped and the goods they were carrying destroyed or plundered.

So finding a solution is now of the utmost urgency, but all that has transpired so far from the political actors involved is the government’s adamant refusal to embrace change and the proliferation of opposition forces, mostly backed by a handful of soldiers, which are essentially defending their right to sit at the negotiation table and get their share of the peace dividends. Hardly surprisingly the negotiations, which seemed to be moving forward on security issues, came to a grinding halt over the allocation of future powers. The final document, presented by the negotiators after months of preparatory meetings and four days of discussions at the negotiating table, was rejected by all parties involved. Essentially, the government refuse to acknowledge any agreement which would involve the return of Machar, a matter the opposition forces are insisting on and is foreseen in the document. On the other hand the opposition believes that the transition institutions have been stuffed full of people to make room for all the different actors, but that in the end the allocation of power suggested was more favourable than the one of August 2015. This means starting again from scratch, while the UN Security Council has recently added other names to the long list of top ranking politicians and military who have been sanctioned as responsible for the failure of all attempts to stem the crisis.

However, one of the main stumbling blocks are the goals of the negotiations and the negotiators themselves. Criticism levelled by various observers underlines the fact that the main focus of the mediation has been the division of power rather than addressing the root of the problem, meaning the reasons that led to the failure of the 2015 agreement. Although whether that agreement is still a valid model is a moot point. Some analysts believe that IGAD is working to find a solution to the conflict that broke out in 2013, a conflict that is no longer taking place, as it has now morphed into something completely different.

So the procedures to be enacted to solve the crises should be sought by taking into account the current situation and setting the negotiations on a different plane. Clearly the regional negotiation panel has also faced some flak. The most influential critique of its workings has come from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who recently stressed that the independence of the IGAD members is essential if the bloody conflict is to come to an end. Adama Dieng, the special councillor for the prevention of genocide, forthrightly stated in an interview with Voice of America that Kenya and Uganda are helping to prolong the crisis by pouring large quantities of arms into the country. These are very serious accusations which would seem to confirm the lack of neutrality often underlined by the South Sudanese opposition. IGAD’s negotiations are thus losing credibility and effectiveness as a result. A change of tack is very much called for.

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