What's new? In February 2020, South Sudan's two main belligerents began forming a unity government pursuant to a peace deal inked a year and a half earlier. But the pact is fragile, smaller conflicts are still ablaze and the threat of return to full-blown civil war remains.
Why does it matter? Forthcoming elections could test the peace deal severely. Looking further ahead, conflict will continue to plague South Sudan until its leaders forge a political system that distributes power more widely. The cost of cyclical fighting since 2013 has been steep: hundreds of thousands dead and millions uprooted from their homes.
What should be done? South Sudan's leaders should strengthen pre-election power sharing and broaden the peace deal to include other parties. They should not rush to polls, if conflict looms, and seek a political settlement decentralising governance and cementing national power sharing. Civil society and external partners should continually advocate for these steps.
Fêted at birth a decade ago, South Sudan is failing. It suffered a brutal civil war from 2013 to 2018, exposing a country whose foundations were weaker and divisions deeper than its well-wishers envisioned. The war has quietened thanks to a peace deal, signed in 2018 by the two main belligerents. But the path to stability is unclear. Not only could the pact collapse, but it does little to calm an insurgency in the nation's south or local violence elsewhere. Elections looming as soon as 2022 threaten to inflame tensions between its signatories. Moreover, South Sudan's winner-take-all political system ill suits a country that requires consensus among major blocs to avert cyclical power struggles. South Sudanese need to get through elections, which may well require some form of pre-election power-sharing pact. They also need a revised political settlement. While prospects of that for now appear slim, the country's reform-minded elites, civil society and external partners should still work toward fairer power sharing at the centre and greater devolution.
While the country's stark development needs were apparent at independence, South Sudanese and outsiders significantly downplayed its political woes, especially its ethnic cleavages. That proved a mistake. Just two years after the triumphal inauguration of the world's newest country in July 2011, South Sudan collapsed at the centre, as the rival camps loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar turned against each other in bloody combat that shattered the ruling party. The resultant fighting, which has mostly taken place along ethnic lines, has killed as many as 400,000 people. Since the 2018 peace deal, which moved forward in February 2020 when Kiir and Machar agreed to form a unity government, the ceasefire between the two main warring parties has held but the pact has accomplished little else.
With the country so broken, the first challenge is maintaining and expanding upon the ceasefire. The peace process requires endless maintenance by external actors, notably East African leaders, with their attentions consumed by efforts to prevent a slide back to war between the two chief factions. Meanwhile, groups that fought under Machar's banner could well split off and return to conflict. Communal violence in parts of the country is running up the death count, particularly in remote rural areas. An insurgency led by Thomas Cirillo, a veteran general in the South's previous struggle against Khartoum, has also taken root in the southern Equatoria region, including near the capital Juba, and risks spreading. Regional and other diplomacy aimed at bolstering the ceasefire between Kiir and Machar is critical, but those involved should do what they can to prevent splinter conflicts and broaden the peace process to include Cirillo.
The next hurdle is preventing renewed violence in the run-up to or aftermath of promised elections. The polls are expected to pit Kiir's coalition against Machar's in what some call a final showdown. That the peace deal culminates in such a winner-take-all contest is a potentially fatal flaw. Even if fighting does not erupt before the polls, as occurred in 2013 when Kiir's faction exchanged fire with Machar's, setting off the civil war, an all-or-nothing vote risks dissolving the agreement's political settlement by locking the losers out of power. Regional leaders and other external actors have to tread a fine line: pushing South Sudanese parties toward elections while showing flexibility when necessary to create space for them to reach consensus on key decisions. At the same time, they should keep a watchful eye on pre-election dynamics and encourage dialogue between Kiir and Machar. If the poll looks set to be fraught, particularly if, as appears likely, both men decide to run, regional leaders should push for a pre-election deal that guarantees a share of power to the loser.
Getting past the vote without a descent into further violence will be hard enough, but the bigger challenge lies in finding a settlement among South Sudanese that lays the groundwork for a sustainable peace. Regional leaders and diplomats are short of ideas as to how to steer South Sudan out of its pattern of peace deals that fall apart. They privately express little optimism or vision for South Sudan's future. Nor is such a vision to be found among South Sudan's major donors, which also once championed its cause and now foot the huge humanitarian bills, if not the ultimate costs, for its failings.