After holding their people hostage in a truly Machiavellian power struggle that has dragged on for weeks, South Sudan's leaders have finally taken a step towards peace. On Thursday, delegates representing the government signed a cessation of hostilities agreement with the armed opposition.
The agreement, which comes into effect today, promises that both sides' combatant forces will stop all military activities aimed at one another and freeze their forces in the places they are in. South Sudan's government has been engaged in a territorial struggle against an armed rebellion for weeks. If respected, the new commitment to a cessation of hostilities should end that and bring a degree of calm back to the embattled country.
While a significant milestone, this commitment is not the end of the peace process for South Sudan. In fact, it is just the beginning.
In the six weeks since fighting broke out in South Sudan's capital city, almost half a million people have fled their homes in fear, thousands have died and countless reports of human rights abuses and war crimes have emerged. Our Satellite Sentinel Project has secured imagery showing hundreds of burned homes and razed villages across the country. In one town, we were able to count over three thousand destroyed structures.
South Sudanese will have to confront these abuses, combat impunity and broker reconciliation between increasingly divided constituencies. This can only happen through an inclusive and broadly consultative national dialogue process complemented by an internationally backed human rights documentation effort.
At its heart, the events of the past six weeks are the product of a long-simmering contest for control of the country's ruling party, the Sudan People Liberation Movement, or SPLM. Despite fledgling efforts to professionalize the national army, build the capacity of government institutions and empower dissenting voices, the SPLM still has the last word on most things in South Sudan.
Since the party is the be all and end all in the country, there was no safety valve when tensions between President Salva Kiir and his erstwhile deputy Riek Machar heated up. When pressure mounted, the political struggle mutated into an ugly violent conflict that quickly found expression in attacks on neighboring ethnic communities. In South Sudan, the easiest way to mobilize constituencies is to stoke the flames of ethnic tensions. As a result, ethnic targeting and reprisals have been happening for weeks now. It is unclear if this week's cessation of hostilities will be able to put that genie back in the bottle.
What is clear is that a vocal commitment to enforcing this new agreement is necessary. That means holding all sides accountable to violations of the terms of the agreement and raising the specter of targeted sanctions and other forms of accountability against those who block peace by continuing military operations.
But this will not be enough. South Sudan needs a real political process to get back on track. This will require power diplomacy in Addis Ababa and the region. U.S. Special Envoy Don Booth and other senior U.S. diplomats can help build the political will necessary to push both sides to make difficult compromises. As in the negotiations leading up to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the U.S. and other interested countries need to be deeply engaged. They must collectively push for a strong commitment to channeling civil society voices into the process. While outsiders can provide technical support, only South Sudanese will have the answers on the way forward.
At this complicated moment, beware of the danger of a single narrative in South Sudan. Many point to the country's rich oil wealth and lament the resource curse as the root cause of the instability. Others highlight the failure to manage South Sudan's rich diversity as the crux of the problem, noting a long history of tensions between the country's two main ethnic groups and centuries of tit-for-tat cattle raids. Some see lingering anger about Riek Machar's central role in a brutal massacre of Dinka in 1991 as a key driving factor behind the violence. In contrast, other observers stress the state security forces' attacks on members of the Nuer community in Juba in mid-December as the real galvanizing factor. Still others are convinced that South Sudan's allies are to blame. Numerous columnists have argued that the U.S. government and key non-governmental actors were too enamored by their own narratives about South Sudan to see things falling apart. This easy critique belies the agency of South Sudanese.
Many outsiders indeed strongly supported the right of self-determination for South Sudanese. Had there been no referendum, the North-South war would have continued with even greater ferocity. So when given the chance to vote on the question, an almost unanimous 99 percent chose independence from a government in the north in 2011. Very few in South Sudan regret that decision. After suffering systematic marginalization and 38 combined years of civil war since Sudan’s independence from Great Britain in 1956, South Sudanese were ready for self-governance. This latest bout of violence is no reason to question the country's very existence.
No one expected the first few years of independence to be smooth. Indeed they were not. Civil society groups justifiably worried about the interim constitution's clear consolidation of power in the hands of the executive. The government has been plagued by endemic corruption and was forced to seek high-interest oil-backed loans to keep the government afloat after unilaterally shutting down oil production in a dispute with neighboring Sudan. More disturbing, rampant reports of human rights abuses by state security forces went largely ignored, although the army did conduct limited prosecutions. But these failures are no reason to abandon South Sudan's people.
President Obama reassured South Sudanese that "those working for a more peaceful, democratic, unified country will continue to have a steady partner in the United States of America." These words are important, but they must be accompanied by further actions. Through an enhanced diplomatic presence, apolitical technical assistance to the mediation process, a commitment to empowering South Sudanese civil society involvement and a push for genuine accountability, the U.S. government once again has a real opportunity to make an impact on South Sudan's future.