South Sudan: can the peace deal hold?

Following five months of fierce fighting that has created a major humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan and his former Vice-President, Riek Machar, signed a peace deal on 9 May in Addis Ababa at talks brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The deal involves an immediate ceasefire and agreement to establish an interim government. Presidential elections due in 2015 have been postponed until 2016 or 2017 to allow time to bring about national reconciliation.

The situation remains extremely fragile and there is no guarantee that the deal will stick. Levels of personal mistrust between the president and his ex-deputy are high. There are no details as yet about what the proposed interim government will look like. There are also questions about the extent to which either Kiir or Machar fully control the forces that have been fighting under their banner. Both sides to the conflict have increasingly looked like loose coalitions of militias – many of them led by people with their own agendas (and often with child soldiers in their ranks). Even in the best case scenario, it could take a while for all these group to cease fighting. There have already been reports of ceasefire violations by both sides. A previous ceasefire in January never took hold.

South Sudan

While the civil war may have originated in power struggles within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), it has increasingly taken on an ‘ethnic’ character. President Kiir is Dinka, which is the largest ethnic group, while Riek Machar is Nuer. A UN report has alleged that both sides have committed crimes against humanity. There have been horrific massacres – most notably of Dinka in Bentiu and Nuer in Bor (see map). Rebels in Bentiu have also been accused of peddling hate speech against Dinka through local radio. There will be difficult choices over how to balance the imperatives of peace and justice when dealing with the serious abuses committed by all sides over the last five months.

While the UN Security Council mandated an increase in the size of the UN peace-keeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to 12,500 personnel on 24 December 2013, the mission is still well short of that size. The Government of South Sudan has sometimes accused UNMISS of siding with the rebels. UN compounds have been directly attacked on several occasions.

Both sides are under immense international and regional pressure to put down their arms. There have been mounting UN Security Council threats to impose sanctions against anybody who obstructs peace efforts. China, which has a major stake in South Sudan’s oil sector, has been active diplomatically. With rebel forces still controlling much of the country’s oil fields and production levels dramatically reduced, the Government of South Sudan faces an economic crisis. Neighbouring Sudan has supported President Kiir but desperately needs a resumption of the revenues that it gets when the South’s oil flows through its pipelines to the outside world. Ugandan troops moved into South Sudan to support Kiir when the crisis began and have been involved at points since then in fighting the rebels.

The violence has taken a terrible toll on civilians. Thousands have died and there are now fears of famine. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon yesterday called on President Kiir and former Vice-President Machar to work together to heal the wounds that have been opened, warning that: “If the conflict continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will be either displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year’s end.”

The UK is the second largest donor to the Crisis Response Plan for South Sudan. DFID has contributed £20.8 million of new humanitarian funding in South Sudan since December 2013. It has also allocated £17 million to support the refugee response in surrounding countries. There is a big funding gap in the UN’s Consolidated Appeal for South Sudan for 2014-16.

Background and further information

In mid-2013, amidst growing concerns about the authoritarian style of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Vice-President Riek Machar indicated that he planned to challenge the president for the chairmanship of the ruling SPLM, which could have been a stepping-stone towards a bid for the presidency in 2015. On 15 December 2013, tensions within the SPLM erupted into violence in the capital, Juba, with fighting rapidly spread to other parts of the country. President Kiir accused his deputy of attempting to overthrow the government, which Machar and his supporters denied.

J. Copnall, “Bentiu massacre highlights continued links between the Sudans after divorce”, African Arguments blog, 8 May 2014

Investigating rape and murder in South Sudan’s Bentiu”, BBC News Online, 9 May 2014

Previous Library briefings: Sudan and South Sudan: all-out war?, SN06142, May 2012; Sudan: war or peace, unity or secession? (RP 10/40, June 2010); Sudan, 2003-09 (SN05555, 1 June 2010)

For information on DFID’s programme in South Sudan, including what the UK spends on development in South Sudan, see the DFID South Sudan operational plan 2013 and its Development tracker

Note: the map is taken from the BBC website

Author: Jon Lunn