With each passing day, South Sudan is sliding toward full-scale civil war, with major regional spill-over. Uganda has militarily intervened and other regional governments are contemplating a deeper role. The one thing preventing the destruction of the newest country in the world is a nascent peace process unfolding in neighboring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If that process succeeds in securing a ceasefire and building a viable negotiations framework, South Sudan gets a second shot at creating a viable state.
How can South Sudan’s peace talks be structured to actually have a chance at brokering sustainable peace? The “good” news is that we already know what doesn’t work. Too many peace conferences that kept civil society, religious leaders, grassroots activists and women out of the room have failed. Partial and non-inclusive peace agreements that are negotiated among only those with the biggest guns don’t lead to lasting peace.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) stopped the fighting between North and South Sudan, but the internal wars within North and South were left unaddressed. In Sudan, deadly conflict has re-erupted in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, with Darfur last year having one of the highest rates of newly displaced people in the world. In South Sudan, deep fissures within the ruling party and local communities were not tackled, and conflict has resumed.
To succeed, the South Sudan peace process must become much more inclusive. Women and youth, notably absent from the current process, must be welcomed. The release of 11 senior officials detained by the government, representing significant political constituencies, must be negotiated, as their involvement in the talks is essential. Church leaders who have played a major role in previous communal reconciliation initiatives need to be in the room.
A quick and dirty power-sharing deal is not the answer to South Sudan’s problems. Simply redistributing power to combatant factions on the basis of the territory under their control would be a huge error. There will be great temptation to speed to a conclusion of the talks, which would leave major conflict drivers unaddressed.
A truly multi-layered approach would address the following priorities in different formats:
Broad, inclusive, national dialogue process: The East African mediation team in Addis Ababa needs to shepherd a broad national dialogue process and governance reform. For too long, the ruling party’s structures have been riven by infighting. Instead, patronage networks evolved based on proximity to power, military might and wealth. As a consequence, a political challenge which could have been resolved through dialogue mutated into armed conflict that has since engulfed the country. Only a truly inclusive national dialogue process will prevent that from happening again, one that addresses governance structures, ruling party cleavages, a legitimate constitution process, and security sector reform. All of this should happen before there are elections with a level playing field. Church-led grassroots inter-communal reconciliation and truth-telling efforts would complement first-track negotiations.
Accountability: Since South Sudan lacks a functioning judicial system, the specter of impunity or rushed military prosecutions is very real. Credibly holding perpetrators responsible for crimes committed in the past three weeks will require setting up independent mechanisms for investigation and prosecution. Otherwise a culture of impunity will prevail, preventing future reconciliation. The proposal for a mixed court, which would involve South Sudanese and international justice sector personnel, should receive consideration, as it has in other post-conflict settings. The U.S. should work within the UN Security Council to establish a targeted sanctions regime focused on the commission of mass atrocities or the subversion of the negotiations.
Army reform: One of the main fault lines in South Sudan existed within the army, erupting at the first sign of stress in December. As part of any peace implementation process, much greater effort and transparency must go into reforming the army and police force. Also, any deal will require a serious demobilization and reintegration program for ex-combatants, with real livelihood options for those leaving armed groups.
The U.S. can play a major role in ensuring the peace process doesn’t repeat past mistakes. This will require a team of diplomats led by Special Envoy Donald Booth and supplemented by issue and process experts who can help work all of the layers of peacemaking. The Troika (UK, Norway and the U.S.) played a crucial role in supporting the mediation process leading up to the CPA and its implementation. Bringing China into the tent would increase the Troika’s influence on the process and the parties. A high-level White House effort should be undertaken with Beijing to find common ground on what our two countries can support together in South Sudan (and Sudan as well), and then integrate those understandings into a new Quartet. The U.S. should do no less to prevent escalation into a preventable protracted war. Millions of lives are quite literally at stake.