In less than a decade, the political rivalry between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and on-and-off Vice President Riek Machar has downgraded the country from the world’s hopeful story of independence to one embroiled in a conflict some cynically thought might never end.
In 2013, two years after achieving independence from Sudan, Kiir fired Machar from his post as vice president, laying the groundwork for a political rivalry that quickly morphed into an armed conflict felt from the capital city of Juba to the most remote areas of the country. But Saturday, Kiir extended his hand for peace, reappointed Machar as vice president and called for both to make amends.
Many hope, albeit cautiously, that this could spell the end to a six-year civil war that has led to the death of an estimated 400,000 people, displaced over 1 million people within South Sudan, and pushed 2 million refugees into neighboring countries.
“This action signifies the official end of the war, and we can now proclaim a new dawn in South Sudan.”
Speaking during a flashy signing ceremony Saturday, Kiir welcomed a new cadre of vice presidents — including Machar — to replace the cabinet he had dissolved the day prior, promising: “This action signifies the official end of the war, and we can now proclaim a new dawn in South Sudan.”
Indeed, the formation of a new unified government is key to implementing a power-sharing deal that was actually signed by the parties in 2018, but was strangled by missed deadlines, and an inability to compromise on outstanding issues — including agreeing on the number of states and unifying troops who are loyal to the two leaders and largely divided among Dinka-Nuer ethnic lines.
But for the people of South Sudan who have suffered the consequences of their leaders' political rivalry and previous attempts at reconciliation, words of peace alone are not enough.
“People are hopeful this time around — it seems like leaders are serious,” said Manasseh Mathiang, an artist and activist in Juba who co-founded the youth organization AnaTaban, which in Arabic means “we are tired” — a word that captures the sentiment among many in South Sudan whose lives have been upended by the protracted conflict.
Mathiang formed the organization in 2016 on the heels of another attempt at peace. In 2015, rebel leader Machar was again reappointed as the vice president. Hands were shaken. Platitudes of peace were made. The international community cheered them on. And one year later, Machar was fleeing the country by foot to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. “There was a lot of anger and frustration,” Mathiang said, adding that he is cautiously optimistic that this time will be different.
Until this month, it seemed like there would be no signing ceremony. In fact, it came on the final day of the newest deadline for the parties to resolve key issues related to the stalled peace deal and forming a transitional unity government. It was only when President Kiir announced he would reluctantly return the number of states in South Sudan from 32 to 10, a major concession, that the leaders seemed to be serious.
“The government had basically gerrymandered the country,” said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who traveled throughout South Sudan last week. “Some areas of the country have essentially seen their land annexed to other ethnic groups.”
With new momentum, Kiir and Machar announced they would finally meet this latest deadline for the sake of the people of South Sudan.
However, the formation of a new government is only the first step, and other key issues outlined in the 2018 peace deal remain unmet, including unifying the national army and negotiating peace with rebel groups not included in the peace deal. Some South Sudanese are more cautious than optimistic, especially those living far outside the capital city in areas worst hit by the war.
“I asked the local women there, when will people feel comfortable to even travel around and move? Well, we first want them to form this government first.”
“I asked the local women there, when will people feel comfortable to even travel around and move?” said Boswell, who was recently in a town called Raga where the mood is more wait-and-see. “Well, we first want them to form this government first. And then maybe they will start to have a bit more hope that this won’t collapse.”
Renewed international engagement
The signing ceremony in Juba was attended by regional leaders who had congratulated President Kiir for his willingness to make peace. Combined pressure from regional leaders and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which brokered meetings between the two rivals, helped push them to this compromise.
The head of the UN Mission to South Sudan, David Shearer, while acknowledging the failed peace deals, called on the international community to renew its engagement with South Sudan.
Yet, years of delays, returns to violence and a lack of political will from South Sudan’s elites makes the call for renewed engagement a big ask, especially for those in the international community who upon hearing the words “South Sudan,” use the word “fatigue.”
The descent of South Sudan into civil war has been especially fatiguing for those who worked to help South Sudan achieve independence.
“This past 10 years has been a lost decade,” said retired Ambassador Donald Steinberg, who served as the deputy head of the US Agency for International Development in 2011, the year South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan.
“This was the culmination of literally decades of work to try to bring autonomy and self-determination to the people of southern Sudan.”
“This was the culmination of literally decades of work to try to bring autonomy and self-determination to the people of southern Sudan,” said Steinberg, referring to the central role played by the United States in helping South Sudan realize its dreams for independence.
Steinberg was part of a special presidential delegation sent by President Barack Obama in 2011 to celebrate the country’s independence and can recall the days when President Kiir and then Vice President Machar were standing side by side, representing the optimistic future of the world's youngest country — forged from decades of violent oppression.
Three years later, those same men would drag South Sudan into a civil war, and erode the faith of many of its loyal stakeholders, especially the United States.
“Frankly, a lot of the goodwill of the international community has been squandered,” Steinberg said.
The United States has donated billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to South Sudan in the past 10 years. Yet the country remains one of the poorest in the world not only because of the conflict but because of widespread corruption by government officials.
“The international community is sick and tired and fed up with providing the government services that the government of South Sudan should be providing for its own people,” said Assistant Secretary of State of African Affairs Tibor Nagy during a teleconference in January.
The mood was on display in the past year, as the US Treasury Department levied back to back sanctions on high ranking South Sudanese officials they deemed "peace process spoilers." In February, the United States finally appointed a special envoy to South Sudan months after a bipartisan group from Congress urged the US to increase diplomatic engagement in the country.
Addressing human rights accountability
On Thursday, the same day the rival leaders agreed to proceed with implementing the peace deal, the UN released a damning new report arguing that all sides of the conflict were guilty of starving their citizens and that the government had embezzled funds that could have gone toward humanitarian support. Today, millions of people are food insecure, an issue compounded by a swarm of desert locusts that recently entered South Sudan from neighboring countries.
This underscores the tough road ahead for South Sudan. “There has been an over-focus on power-sharing in the peace agreement,” said Nyagouh Tut Pur, a South Sudanese researcher at the Human Rights Watch. According to Tut Pur, human rights need to be at the center of the peace-building process.
“There are numerous human rights issues that need to be addressed, one of which is ensuring abducted women and girls are released from armed groups,” she said.