A rebellion in Equatoria, South Sudan’s southernmost region, is undermining the already troubled peace between the main belligerents in its civil war. Mediators should push for a wider compact that accommodates Equatorian grievances and includes the insurgent general in talks about the country’s political future.
What’s new? Despite a 2018 deal bringing South Sudan’s main warring parties into a ceasefire and unity government, a rebellion in the southern multi-ethnic Equatoria region fights on. Its leader, Thomas Cirillo, rejects the agreement, saying it fails to address his peoples’ core grievances, while calling for greater autonomy from the centre.
Why does it matter? On-and-off fighting is cutting a swathe of destruction in Equatoria, including south and west of the capital Juba, displacing hundreds of thousands of people into neighbouring countries and obstructing South Sudan’s path out of war and toward a more viable future.
What should be done? Mediators and external powers should press Cirillo and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to broaden the existing peace deal by fulfilling the bespoke ceasefire agreement between them. Cirillo should join the country’s constitution-making process. Parties also should support a grassroots process to address local grievances.
South Sudan’s long civil war is not over, as a major insurgency south and west of the capital Juba has plunged large parts of the Equatoria region into chronic bouts of violence that have displaced many thousands. A February 2018 pact bringing South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his rival First Vice President Riek Machar into a ceasefire and unity government was a major step forward in ending the war. Yet the holdout rebellion in Equatoria shows few signs of abating. Driven by grievances sharpened over decades, the rebels and their supporters demand greater autonomy and political decentralisation. Mediators and external powers should push the warring parties to abide by commitments they have already made to respect a ceasefire. They should then broker a deal to bring the rebels into the national peace process and, later, the constitutional negotiations that this process calls for. The country’s outside partners should also forge grassroots support for a deal in places afflicted by conflict.
Many Equatorians feel that the region has been excluded from negotiations to end the civil war, which helps explain why its conflict has become entrenched. After war broke out in 2013, most Equatorian politicians shied away from involvement, leaving the main belligerents Kiir and Machar to battle it out, although they did ask to be included in peace talks. When Kiir blocked their inclusion as a bloc, armed factions from Equatoria rose up against the national army. Unable to unite, many of them drifted into Machar’s camp, adding tinder to the feud burning between him and Kiir and prolonging the war. Yet as talks focused on finding a deal between Kiir and Machar, Equatorians continued to feel sidelined. In 2017, Thomas Cirillo, a top Equatorian general in the national army, broke off and declared his own insurgency in the region, gaining the loyalty of major opposition commanders south and west of Juba. Although Kiir and Cirillo committed to a ceasefire of their own in early 2020, that agreement quickly broke down. The holdout general’s units today are fighting the forces of both Kiir and Machar.
As long as this insurgency endures, South Sudan is unlikely to be able to consolidate peace, notwithstanding the deal between Kiir and Machar, which is holding for now. Equatoria is a cornerstone of the country. It was the birthplace of the 1960s liberation movement that set South Sudan on the path to independence from Khartoum, and its people have a long tradition of advocating and fighting for autonomy. Today, besides being home to the capital, the region is the gateway to neighbouring countries to the west and south. Its peoples are mixed in ethnicity but have a common aversion to political domination by outsiders. Their relations are particularly bitter with the Dinka, Kiir’s ethnic group (and South Sudan’s largest), who have moved into the region, often with large herds of cattle guarded by heavily armed and abusive militias. Local sympathy for Cirillo’s demands is strong, even as his forces are also accused of mistreating civilians.
International efforts need to ensure that Equatoria is part of the national reconciliation effort. Mediators and external powers should push for Juba and Cirillo to fulfil the terms of their ceasefire deal, including incorporating Cirillo’s representatives in the existing ceasefire-monitoring body. They should also press Kiir to bolster and Cirillo to join the constitution-making process that the deal between Kiir and Machar provides for. This way, the holdout rebel leader will have an avenue to press home his demands at the table, instead of on the battlefield. To complement these top-down efforts, all parties will need to work together to win grassroots support for the deal and to tackle the local grievances against the government and ruling elite that underpin the intense political alienation found across Equatoria.