Five years into South Sudan’s civil war, the main belligerents have once again agreed to stop fighting and form a unity government. But the set of agreements, finalised on 12 September 2018, two years after the last accord collapsed, does not end the country’s deep crisis. It neither resolves the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and erstwhile rebel leader Riek Machar nor outlines a final political settlement for the country. Rather, it establishes a wobbly Kiir-Machar truce and grafts it onto the previous failed peace terms, without delivering much benefit to other groups that have been shut out of power. The new deal has lessened fighting, a welcome outcome, but it could break down over any number of outstanding disputes. Diplomats should handle the truce with care, nurturing momentum toward peace while pressing urgently for a more lasting settlement.
The accord, brokered by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, is not a finished product and requires revision, a reality that mediators are not yet ready to admit. Additional political deals are necessary on two crucial matters – unifying a national army and resolving bitter disagreements over local boundaries and administration inside South Sudan. Absent such deals, the Kiir-Machar truce may fail its first major test in May 2019, when the two South Sudanese leaders are scheduled to form a unity government.
Most worrying at present, Kiir and Machar are still negotiating shared security control of the capital Juba, the scenario which led to the bloody setback in 2016. This prospect is a powerful argument for delaying the unity government’s formation past May, to grant mediators time to organise a small, limited-mandate third-party protection force for opposition leaders, the least objectionable of bad options for Juba’s security arrangements. The parties should come to consensus on whether to move back the May deadline. They should also remain open to supplemental negotiations with those opposition leaders commanding large forces who have rejected the peace deal.
The accord’s flaws should be a call to international action; instead, diplomatic apathy prevails. Western diplomats, whose countries have paid billions to feed and care for South Sudan’s beleaguered civilian population, have failed to keep up with the rapid pace of events. The U.S. in particular appears to have abdicated its leading role in South Sudan diplomacy; outside of other Horn of Africa states, no country has stepped up to assume the mantle. The absence of diplomatic leadership is baffling. A more proactive posture is urgently needed.