It would have been comical if the competition for power and for control of resources between South Sudanese politic-military elites had not caused the outbreak of civil war in 2013, resulting in all manner of human suffering, State failure and the country’s bottom ranking by every index known to man.
Despite multiple peace agreements, the parties in this saga have simply found it easier to be each other’s detractors than compromise for the good of the country and its war-battered people. They seem to sign peace agreements none of them wants to abide by. It dates back to 1991, when the then liberation movement, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, split into two over some of its leaders’ spectacular failure to append their individual aspirations to the interest of the whole. But the chapter currently at hand began in 2015, when the warring leaders signed a peace deal, returned the opposition to the country, formed a power-sharing government in 2016 and raised everyone’s hopes about a possible return of sanity. But it was not long before they started to shoot it out, right inside the State House, when they disagreed on the functioning of the deal. The unity government collapsed, and the country was back to a vicious cycle of war.
Then they tried another round of peace, this time around strong-armed by the governments of Sudan and Uganda. They concluded a new deal in September 2018. But with the parties making conditions and using all types of delaying tactics, each hoping the other would become more desperate for peace and grant more concessions, it was not until February this year that they finally agreed once more to form a power-sharing Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU).
There has now been some cautious optimism about peace in South Sudan since February. The principal opposition Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM-IO), led by Riek Machar, and the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement in Government (SPLM-IG), under President Salva Kiir, agreed to have five vice presidents and formed a cabinet. But that was about all. Once the presidency and the cabinet were established, the public turned their eyes to the most immediate causes of their suffering, the daunting insecurity throughout the country, the dire economic situation, which the government had always blamed on the war, the deplorable state of human security, especially the disastrous food insecurity, the state of health services, which shot up to the top of priorities for every citizen when the global pandemic, Covid-19, made its landing in the country at the end of March.
But there was only a deafening silence from the newly formed government. Very little else was done to respond to the massive popular expectations - nothing by way of policies or programmes aimed at rebuilding what the war had wrecked. For example, the war had nearly emptied the country as millions of its people fled into Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, not to say anything about further millions who are internally displaced, all living in indescribable conditions, and yet not a word has been spoken about repatriation of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons back to their homelands. How this is not weighing on the leaders’ conscience is beyond anyone’s logic.
By merely focusing on power-sharing arrangements as the central piece in the peace agreement, the parties bypassed some of the most central clauses of the agreement, particularly chapter two, which talks of security arrangements, including cantonment of their various forces, joint training and eventual creation of a unified professional national army out of these forces, some of which had been nothing but ill-trained militias.
Instead, the parties have spent a lot of energy on talk about the letter and the spirit of the agreement, even as every other action by them involves violation of the said agreement. There have been many disputes between them on the restructuring of the legislature, which should have preceded the formation of the Cabinet, since the legislature is presumed to have the constitutional mandate to vet and confirm nominated Cabinet Secretaries. There was the review of the Constitution so as to append the peace agreement to it, but that too has since gone unmentioned. The whole peace agreement and its implementation have all been talk and no positive action, at least nothing on which the people have been able to build their hopes.
Above all, the power-sharing structures at the level of states and counties have caused too much agony for the populations living without local governments to steer the local affairs.
Skirting around the security arrangements quickly became the main threat to the viability of the agreement and the country’s capacity to govern itself. The country is currently one of the most dangerous places on earth. Be it due to the firearms in the hands of many civilians, former fighters leaving the forces and returning home with their guns, the inability or unwillingness of the State to monopolise the use of force and coercion, the excesses of the country’s security forces, criminal violence or ethnic feuding, the reality is that life in South Sudan has never been more precarious. It has perhaps gotten even worse than before the peace agreement by certain accounts. It has reached a point where citizens no longer look to law enforcement or the country’s security forces for safety, since government forces are the perpetrators of the many atrocious acts of violence than they are protectors of the country’s population. And much of this relates to the slow or non-implementation of the peace agreement, particularly because the parties have spent the last four months fighting over the distribution of state gubernatorial allocations, leaving a governance vacuum in the states and counties.
South Sudanese probably agree that this rampant insecurity is more characteristic of State failure than anything else. Not even hunger, disease, lack of education, poor housing and lack of economic development in general, compare to the desperation wrought by insecurity. In the whole of 2018, 2019 and this half of 2020, South Sudan has seen unprecedented spike in ethnic and sectional warfare, especially in the Eastern of state Jonglei, Lakes, Unity, Warrap and Upper Nile, all of it indicative of the fragility of the country, weakness of its security apparatus, lack of justice and increased level of poverty as primary drivers of violence. And then there is, of course, the armed opposition parties that are still holding out of the peace agreement continuing to cause sporadic fighting in Yei River District. Despite all this, it seems to me that so many people remain hopeful, as South Sudanese are well-known for their resilience in the face of dire straits, pinning the current levels of insecurity on the incompleteness of the R-TGoNU, and saying that this level of violence is largely due to the absence of government at the level of states and counties and from the people’s everyday lives. In other words, despite the obvious incapacity or unwillingness of the parties to the peace agreement to prioritise peace and security, most people continue to believe in this bad peace than a good peace that might be unattainable. They press ahead with the demand that state-level governments be quickly formed in order to fill the governance gap left behind by their dissolution in February 2020.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.