In September 2018, South Sudanese political and armed actors signed a new peace agreement after months of negotiations between parties to the defunct 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) and other groups that had since been created. While hailed by some as a significant step forward, the deal is clearly fragile. Fighting has since continued in parts of the country and some parties have reconsidered their support for the deal.
Prior to the signing of this agreement, International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) interviewed over 100 South Sudanese citizens, at home and in exile, about what they knew and thought about previous peace agreements and efforts to get the country’s main political actors around the table.
While such views are influenced by people’s access to information and by their own political and personal views, they give an insight into citizens’ perceptions and prevailing narratives about the conflict and its solutions, and provide lessons to improve citizen engagement with these elite processes.
Most of our respondents were aware and supportive of previous peace agreements but regretted the lack of implementation. Similarly, many were supportive but critical of current talks: they blamed South Sudan’s political class for prioritising rent-seeking instead of solutions to the war that has ravaged South Sudan since 2013, and international mediators for their bias and for putting insufficient pressure on the parties.
Most respondents were positive about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in 2005, which paved the way to independence in 2011, describing it as the only successful peace agreement for South Sudan. The ARCSS, signed in 2015 between the governing SPLM/A, the SPLM/A in Opposition (SPLM-IO) and other smaller groups, received similar support, especially its commitments on public reforms, elections and accountability and (vague) references to equal representation and federalism.
Almost all respondents, however, regretted the lack of implementation of the 2015 agreement, which the majority blamed on the current government of South Sudan, while others blamed the rebel SPLM-IO. Several mentioned the reluctance of the government during the talks and its reservations when signing under international pressure, saying it was a precursor to the breakdown of the agreement in July 2016 when fighting erupted in the capital Juba. They also pointed to a lack of follow-up on the agreement by regional and international actors, and to a lack of pressure on the parties, especially the government, to implement it.
Likewise, respondents were unanimous in their criticism of President Kiir’s National Dialogue process announced in 2016. Most feared it would not obtain any results given the context of violence, displacement and restrictions to public freedoms, as well as due to the lack of buy-in of key opposition groups.
Despite this, most of those interviewed believed in the value of a country-wide dialogue initiative to collect citizens’ views. Indeed, many said they believed such an initiative would be crucial to prevent further violence and address the country’s many structural problems, as soon as minimum requirements related to security and political space are in place, and when those responsible for atrocities are held accountable. There was general consensus that such a forum could go beyond the narrow focus on power-sharing that dominated the latest regionally-led discussions, and could address contentious issues, such as the number of states or localised conflicts, from escalating.
IRRI also asked respondents about the then-ongoing High-Level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF) created by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to revive the 2015 peace deal. Some saw a new attempt to reach a negotiated political solution to the conflict as the only option, while others did not believe this would yield any fruit.
However, even those who saw this process as the last chance were nonetheless pessimistic about its chances of success, mentioning the failure of the 2015 agreement. They pointed to two stumbling blocks: the behaviour of the parties, and the mediation by IGAD. Some blamed all the parties at the table, part of a wider discontent with the South Sudanese political class, but most put the blame on the government. IGAD was criticised for not sufficiently steering the HLRF and its member states, especially Kenya and Uganda, and for its bias towards the South Sudanese government. Such perceptions might have changed when Sudan took the lead, given its more coercive approach and, of course, its historical relationship with the South.
Respondents valued the wider participation in the HLRF as compared to the pre-ARCSS discussions. Some warned against the possible negative repercussions of excluding actors, while others feared that integration of every armed group could reward and embolden armed actors. Others emphasised the need for those responsible for atrocities to be held accountable. The exclusion of Riek Machar from the talks at the time of the field research was deplored by several interlocutors. Many supported the presence of civil society and wanted their own representatives to attend the meetings in Addis and Khartoum.
Our research also brought up several suggestions to improve the dialogue processes. First, many felt that IGAD should have been replaced by another mediator, such as the AU or Western actors. Second, they proposed increasing monitoring and enforcement of any newly-signed agreement, reflecting lessons learned from the ARCSS fiasco. Unfortunately, the provisions on monitoring and sanctions have not been strengthened in the September 2018 agreement. Third, respondents advocated for increased international pressure on the parties to ensure implementation and an end to the violence.
Finally, if the recently signed agreement is not implemented or results in a new breakdown, respondents suggested three alternatives: an international intervention to topple their leaders and bring them to account; elections to allow citizens to decide who should rule their country; or a military solution to the conflict. As all these scenarios have clear limitations and carry with them serious risks of further atrocities, it is important to ensure that the 2018 agreement, no matter how flawed it might be, becomes a stepping stone rather than an additional setback to bringing an end to the conflict in South Sudan.