New Deal, New Dangers in South Sudan

Published: 7 Aug 2018
By: Thijs Van Laer


On 7 August, South Sudan’s president and main opposition leaders signed a new deal, which allows for the inclusion of the latter in the country’s government and is supposed to end the conflict that has ravaged the country since it started in late 2013.

Despite hopeful statements by the signatories and its guarantors, this agreement repeats the same power-sharing approach as the previous, defunct peace agreement from 2015, and there is a clear risk that implementation will fail again. Such failure comes at a huge human cost. When the 2015 agreement broke down less than a year after its signing, this led to large-scale violence and atrocities against civilians. Ceasefire agreements signed since have consistently been violated.

Over the last months, International Refugee Rights Initiative has spoken to more than 100 South Sudanese citizens to understand what they think about previous peace agreements and about the efforts to reach an agreement that were then still ongoing. While the full report based on this research will be published in September, we are sharing a summary of its findings, given this new development.

Most of the people we spoke to in and outside South Sudan were well aware of the previous peace agreement, signed in 2015. While they were largely positive about its contents, especially the provisions on government reforms, federalism and accountability for atrocity crimes, they blamed the parties, especially those controlling the government, for not implementing it. Many of the people we interviewed, including those in refugee settlements in Uganda and in displacement sites in the cities of Juba and Wau, were themselves victims of the fighting that broke out in July 2016 between the government and the main opposition group, the SPLM-IO.

Because of the failure of the 2015 agreement, many have either lost hope that dialogue will obtain a significant improvement in their situation, or were pessimistic about its chances of success, pointing mainly at the unwillingness of the parties to reach a compromise and the bias of the mediator, IGAD, towards those controlling the government. Many of our interlocutors supported the inclusion of new armed actors in the agreement, while at the same time cautioning against the possible negative incentives this could create to encourage others to pick up arms in exchange for a seat at the table. In the end, while this recent agreement was signed by all major political and armed groups, a coalition of opposition actors only signed after regional pressure, and the group of “former detainees” issued reservations. Several of our interlocutors mentioned how previous pressure to sign and reservations resulted in non-implementation. The involvement of ‘Khartoum’ in this deal might also create new fault lines.

The newly signed agreement only addresses a limited number of issues, and further builds on the 2015 agreement, despite its abject failure. The new deal focusses on power-sharing arrangements at all levels of government, by increasing the number of vice-presidents to five, ministers to 35 and legislators to 550, confirming the impression by many that the political elite is only interested in promoting its own interests. The contentious issue of the number and boundaries of states – mentioned by several interlocutors as a priority – will be determined by a dedicated commission or by referendum if the commission fails. It contains only vague provisions on federalism, recognising it nonetheless as a “popular demand”, which our research confirmed.

People we spoke to also blamed the monitoring bodies created by the 2015 agreement for not speaking up about violations and its mediators and guarantors for not sufficiently pressuring parties to respect and implement it. As a man in the POC site in Juba told us: “If the AU and IGAD had been serious about the peace agreement, they would have forced the parties to continue the implementation. [But] they all sided with the government. Why are they listening to Salva Kiir? They still cooperate with someone who has blood on his hands.”[1] The current agreement only mentions the need to “revitalise and restructure” the monitoring bodies, which is likely to be insufficient, and fails to mention sanctions on spoilers.

Our interlocutors, in contrast, often advocated for more pressure on parties to respect and implement what they signed up to. They pointed at the need for IGAD and AU countries to impose sanctions, but realised the limited likelihood of that happening, given these countries’ interests, despite some encouraging rhetoric. As an alternative, they looked at other countries, especially members of the Troika and the UN Security Council, to enforce an agreement. While those actors have over the course of the last months increased pressure, including by imposing a long overdue arms embargo, western countries have been less involved than during the talks leading to the 2015 agreement.

Many suggested that, as soon as a political settlement is reached between the main warring parties, a wider dialogue would have to be organised, involving citizens and other groups across the country. This would allow a discussion about deeper issues, such as local conflicts, ‘tribalism’, governance, citizen participation, corruption, inequality and accountability, which unaddressed, they said, would lead the country back to violence. Many lambasted the previous National Dialogue – a government initiative – for its bias and lack of results, and therefore premised the effectiveness of such an internal dialogue process on the effectiveness of the peace agreement in improving security, and on the need to provide accountability for the atrocities committed since the beginning of the war. It seems, however, that security arrangements are still vague and little different from those that prompted the 2016 violence and that accountability is blatantly absent, one of the major flaws of the document.

Another issue absent from the agreement is a reference to a demand made by many of our interlocutors: the need for the current leaders to retire and new ones to take over. An IDP in Juba expressed this in a candid way: “If there are rotten onions in a bag, you throw them out and get new ones.”[2] Most realised those leaders would not leave on their own initiative and pleaded for international pressure, armed force or elections, all highly controversial. Rather than addressing this, however, this agreement further consolidates the power of those responsible for the last years of violence, corruption and human suffering. As a Dinka woman in Wau told us:  “Our leaders are not after peace but after positions. They are forgetting the suffering of their people, the very people who voted them in office.”[3]

While people in South Sudan have been longing for a peaceful solution to the conflict, this agreement is likely to fall short of achieving this. People in South Sudan have already seen many similar deals to redistribute power and resources, but without implementation and follow-up. Will it be better this time around? That seems, unfortunately, unlikely.


[1] Interview with citizen, POC site Juba, 3 May 2018.

[2] Interview with citizen, POC site Juba, 3 May 2018.

[3] Interview with citizen, Wau, 8 May 2018.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability, Responsibility to Protect R2P
Regions: South Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog