The peace deal signed today between the government of South Sudan and armed opposition groups has significant shortcomings that could easily lead the country right back to full-scale war.
The South Sudanese have endured immense suffering in the last five years as the fighting has brought on food shortages and massive displacement. Nearly five million people have been forced out of their homes, inside and outside the country. Uncounted thousands are dead. The country’s economy is a write-off. Double-digit inflation has ensured that millions are on a knife’s edge of survival and the risk of famine still looms large.
At the root of the conflict in South Sudan is the existence of a state whose institutions have been hijacked and repurposed to benefit a few top-level politicians. Other groups, each clamoring for a bigger piece of the pie—or the whole of it—then engaged in a violent contest to capture the state, plunging the country into a deadly war.
Today’s agreement is at its heart simply a crass division of the spoils between the rival factions with the biggest guns. It lacks meaningful checks and balances on executive overreach in a country in which the presidency already wields immense powers that are used mainly to loot the country’s resources and deploy extreme violence against opponents, whether military or civilian.
Beneath the veneer of power-sharing arrangements on a host of contentious issues, including state borders being redrawn by the regime to reinforce its control among regional and ethnic bases, lurk several articles that grant undue advantage to the chief executive.
Worst of all, this peace agreement lacks realistic outcomes on many of the most contentious issues.
Over the years, South Sudan’s vast oil revenues have been pocketed by high-level politicians and their families, carted out of the country and invested in high-value property and other businesses.
An inquiry into the root causes of the conflict by the African Union in 2015 identified corruption as a major driver of conflict in the country. This looting of the public purse requires a solution that will stop politicians dipping into state coffers for their own financial benefit. Yet in many aspects, the new peace deal fails to undo the theft of government revenue by entrusting the same politicians with final oversight on revenue spending without any meaningful restraint.
Beyond checks on executive power, any peace pact between armed protagonists is underpinned by its security arrangements. With ambiguous, unrealistic, and unsustainable expectations, the current security arrangements are a mish-mash of stipulations that create doubt and uncertainty for the leaders of armed groups on the critical matter of security in the capital, Juba, and funding for the cantonment of insurgent fighters. These challenges could unravel the whole agreement and plunge the country into another cycle of deadly violence.
The regional mediators behind this deal succeeded in getting the protagonists talking again and persuaded them to respect a signed ceasefire, but this could be nothing more that the lull before the big storm with the consequences looming on the horizon like a category five hurricane.
However, it need not be this way.
The United States, Europe, and other friends of the South Sudanese people must build more leverage to ensure implementation of a peace deal that addresses the systemic problems fueling the war.
The U.S holds the biggest potential stick. Recent U.S targeted sanctions on individuals and entities behind the war in South Sudan had some impact, giving the government an incentive to sign the current deal, but much greater pressure will be required for its implementation, and for good governance to have a chance.
What is required, specifically, is for the U.S. and other willing nations to impose sanctions on the networks of South Sudanese officials and their commercial collaborators who continue to loot the country’s resources, and to combine those sanctions with anti-money-laundering measures designed ultimately to deny the war criminals and their commercial collaborators access to the international banking system.
America and Europe must raise the cost to those facilitating the destruction of the world’s newest country as well as those benefiting from it, in particular the banking and real estate sectors in countries neighboring South Sudan. Until the costs of war and chaos outweigh their benefits, the deadly status quo will remain, no matter what pieces of paper are signed.