by Steven C. Roach
One half of the rivalry that has defined South Sudan’s politics since independence is no longer around the table. Will this be a help or hindrance?
Since heavy fighting broke out in Juba this July, leading to the deaths of hundreds and raising fears that a return to all out civil war was imminent, the situation in the city has stabilised. In early September, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) returned to the capital and the peace process has officially recommenced.
In the lead-up to the recent clashes, this process had stalled as rivals President Salva Kiir and then First Vice-President Riek Machar had been unable to overcome their mutual distrust. The outbreak of violence was seen by many as a return to square one.
However, as negotiators return to the drawing board this time around, there is at least one notable difference. Former rebel leader and vice-president Machar – one half of the rivalry that has defined South Sudan’s politics since independence in 2011 – will no longer be around the table.
South Sudan’s current peace deal was signed by Kiir and Machar in August 2015 following a brutal two-year civil war that claimed around 50,000 lives and displaced nearly 2 million people. But after the agreement was made, the two leaders dragged their feet in implementing it.
Neither figure was able to trust the other and tensions escalated for almost a year until, on 9 July, Kiir’s guards clashed with Machar’s troops stationed outside the parliament building. Hours later, government troops fought with factions of Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) in Jebel, the western suburb of Juba. Hundreds of people are estimated to have died in the fighting that continued over the next few days.
A ceasefire was ordered by the two leaders, but Machar soon accused Kiir of intentionally attacking his troops and of even trying to kill him. In the fighting, Machar fled the country, and as the violence diminished, Kiir issued his Vice-President an ultimatum to return to the capital to continue the peace process.
When Machar remained in hiding beyond the 23 July deadline, Kiir replaced him with Taban Deng Gai, the SPLM-IO’s chief negotiator in the 2015 peace deal.
The legitimacy of this reshuffle has been disputed. Kiir may have wanted to appear more committed to the peace process, but many see the swift nature of his action as evidence that his real intention was to eliminate his longstanding rival. Moreover, Machar’s camp argues that his sacking violates the terms of the peace agreement of which Machar was a principal negotiator. Some international officials seem to agree with this perspective, though it is notable that the United States and United Nations both received Deng recently, allowing him to represent South Sudan at the ongoing UN General Assembly in New York.
Nevertheless, regardless of its legitimacy, the more pressing question is of whether the replacement of Machar with Deng will help or hinder South Sudan’s tentative peace process.
From inside rival to outside threat
On the one hand, Deng’s appointment was not without cause and it may have encouraged more factions to rally behind Kiir’s government. For example, three SPLA-IO commanders in the Unity region – Lt General Duor Manjour, General, Liah Dui and Makal Kuol – announced that they had shifted their loyalty from Machar to Deng. However, it is difficult to determine at this point whether these cases indicate a growing solidarity around Deng within the SPLM-IO more broadly.
It is also possible that Deng’s more pragmatic approach and diplomatic demeanour – as compared to Machar – could lead to more promising opportunities to re-engage with the peace deal’s implementation and the reintegration of security forces in Juba. Additionally, as one former IGAD official who spoke to African Arguments emphasised, Deng brings something else new to the table: his Misseriya (an Arab tribe) descent, which may enable him to foster better ties with Sudan.
These may be causes for hope. However, on the other hand, Machar’s sacking could significantly backfire.
To begin with, there is now a deepening rift within the SPLM-IO, with Machar still commanding the loyalty of many factions, some of which have threatened to invade Juba unless an African Union regional force is deployed. So while Kiir may have succeeded in forcing Machar from the country, this has added a new, outside threat. Even if the president can convince IGAD mediators that he is committed to the peace deal, Machar’s outsider status may offer him the opportunity to focus greater international attention on Kiir’s questionable actions. This could further undermine the president following the UN’s announcement that it will investigate the killing of two of its officers by government troops and the rape of aid workers by Kiir’s soldiers in Juba.
Furthermore, Machar has also begun to rekindle his ties with the leaders of neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although Ethiopia and Sudan have recently restricted the conditions of his stay and public relations, few will have forgotten Machar’s effectiveness in double-dealing with foreign powers: for example, when he emerged as a dissident in the SPLA in 1991 before siding with Khartoum in the mid-1990s, only to return to the SPLA again in 2001.
Ultimately, it seems that Machar’s flight adds another volatile dimension to a peace process that is already deeply fragile.
Moreover, his dismissal appears for now to be part of Kiir’s larger plan to eliminate all political opposition and dissidents from the country. Government troops, for instance, were recently implicated in the killing of one of South Sudan’s most popular civil society activists. And if these cases are indicative, they may be the start of a purging process of his political rivals and members of the Nuer ethnic group from which Machar hails; Kiir belongs to the other majority ethnic group, the Dinka.
Carrying out such a process requires strong domestic support and, so far, Kiir has been able to galvanise distrust of those seen as outsiders. This includes political opponents, but also extends to foreign officials and aid workers. Since the fighting in July, foreign peacekeeper numbers have increased with IGAD sending an extra 4,000 and the UN raising numbers of troops from 12,500 to 14,500. This has helped stabilise the situation, but the government’s rhetoric has simultaneously increased distrust of such outside actors. On a recent visit to Juba this month, the effects of this sentiment were visible on the streets as a banner by a major intersection demanded “The UN out of South Sudan”.
A year on, the peace process looks as precarious as ever.
Steven C. Roach is Associate Professor of International Affairs at the University of South Florida. He has published widely on international criminal law, human rights and East African Politics. You can follow him on Twitter @sroach82