On 12 November, the government of South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition (SPLM-IO) rebellion, and a raft of smaller armed and unarmed groups are expected to form a Transitional Government of National Unity, under the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS, signed in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in September 2018). With progress on the most significant pre-transitional milestones lagging far behind schedule, SPLM-IO rebel leader Riek Machar threatening to withhold his participation in the Transitional Government, and President Salva Kiir insisting that the deadline be met, the ingredients for an unravelling of the peace accord seemed to be in place (Sudan Tribune, 21 October 2019).
A last minute intervention by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) heads of state in Entebbe, Uganda, saw the two men agree to a 100-day extension of the pre-transitional period, with a review scheduled 50 days into this extension (Eye Radio, 7 November 2019). This was justified by Salva Kiir the following day on the grounds of averting renewed war with the SPLM-IO, and because of the government’s own failure to disperse funds necessary for logistically complicated parts of the agreement (Radio Miraya, 8 November 2019). The president further noted that he had to accept to “persuasion” of the peace garauntors (Uganda and Sudan), and that a new committee to monitor progress was to report to the guarantors. He also alluded to the possibility of further extensions being required, in the event of insufficient progress. With this second extension (following an earlier six-month extension in May), South Sudan remains in a state of suspended animation. It is not clear where the pieces will ultimately fall, and this uncertainty is causing concern (and frustration) among some observers and diplomats. The spectre of a return to the heavy fighting that rocked the South Sudanese capital, Juba, in July 2016 underpins many of these fears, and perhaps too a deeper sense of despair at the prospects for a meaningful and orderly peace to take root in the near future. This extension provides an opportunity to reflect on South Sudan’s trajectory under R-ARCSS. Are fears of a power struggle and violent collapse well-founded? And are there indications that South Sudan’s profoundly abusive power structures are likely to change for the better?