Now that the implementation of South Sudan’s shaky peace agreement has officially been delayed by six months, worries are mounting that a half year leaves enough time for things to go badly wrong in a country where suspicion between the warring parties runs deep.
All parties face immense challenges in putting in place a deal to end a five-year conflict that has killed almost 400,000 people, displaced millions, and left parts of the country famished.
Delaying the peace plan means that instead of a transitional power-sharing government being installed this month as stipulated by an agreement signed last September, opposition leader Riek Machar is now expected to return to the capital, Juba, in November to serve as President Salva Kiir’s deputy.
While the international community has lauded the parties’ ability to come to a consensus over the postponement, it has warned that progress must be made over the next six months and that another delay is out of the question.
Meanwhile, South Sudanese are increasingly wary that the longer the fragile deal is delayed, the less likely it will be that peace will hold.
“I am not comfortable with the extension,” said William Magok, who is eager to leave his UN-protected displaced persons camp in Juba, where he has been living since 2013. “Now I am afraid to leave because if I go, maybe something bad will happen… I do not trust the government.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council stated in a recent report that “war-weary citizens” cannot afford further delays.
Some 45,000 people face starvation, which could worsen to “famine-like conditions” without assistance, the NRC warned.
By July, almost seven million people — 60 per cent of the population — could face extreme hunger.
Without lasting peace, people remain reluctant to return to their homes, markets cannot recover, and many of the dynamics that complicate the distribution of aid remain, said Jeremy Taylor, East Africa analyst with the NRC.
What prompted the delay?
Long before the latest developments around the South Sudan peace deal, it had become clear that the eight-month pre-transitional phase was fraught with missed deadlines and a government “reluctant to share control of key parts of the political, security and economic landscape,” a report by a panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council stated.
The biggest stumbling block has been delays in the creation of a unified army, followed by lack of progress on security arrangements and setting state boundaries.
Angelina Teny, Machar’s wife, has for instance said that the opposition has insisted it would be a “recipe for disaster” if Dr Machar returned to Juba without adequate security in place.
The failure of a previous peace deal in August 2015 is largely attributed to the inadequate security arrangements.
Machar returned to the capital in April 2016 with over 1,000 heavily armed bodyguards as part of a power-sharing deal, but fighting broke out three months later and Machar was forced to flee the country on foot.
“The peace deal’s security provisions in particular have remained a dead letter,” a report by the International Crisis Group says.
Besides, according to the 2018 peace agreement, opposition and government forces are supposed to be cantoned and trained before unifying into a national army. There has been little progress on that front.
“Kiir’s army ignored provisions to demilitarise cities,” the International Crisis Group report stated.
“There was no advance toward cantonment: Machar did not send his soldiers to camp.”
Instead, all sides have been accused of increasing recruitment in the past months. In January, 1,200 men in Twic State were press-ganged into the government army, according to a letter sent from community leaders to the governor.
South Sudan will soon enter the rainy season, which will make cantoning combatants even more challenging as travel becomes harder.
The issue of internal boundaries also remains unsettled. At independence in 2011, South Sudan had 10 states.
But after signing the 2015 peace deal, Kiir increased the number to 28, which later became 32 states in what South Sudan experts say was intended to gerrymander boundaries along ethnic lines.
Currently, neither side can agree on how many states should exist.
Who are the peace spoilers?
While fighting has largely subsided since September, clashes continue in pockets across the country, specifically in Central Equatoria State, where the National Salvation Front (NAS), one of the key non-signatory parties to the agreement, has a large presence.
It seems unlikely that NAS will change course. Its leader, Thomas Cirillo, has vowed to continue the “struggle” against what he calls a “suppressive” regime that has betrayed the people and wants the peace deal renegotiated.
Thousands of people have been displaced since January, many hiding in the bush and leaving civilians caught between the warring sides, without shelter or other basic needs.
During talks in Juba last week, foreign ministers from East Africa said they would conduct “one final round” of talks with the handful of non-signatory groups to persuade them to join the peace process. The groups would “face consequences” if the talks were not successful, the ministers added.
Is six months long enough?
Parties will need to chart a reasonable path forward on security that enables — rather than obstructs — progress on other aspects of the accord, said Alan Boswell, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
But without more engaged outside mediation, “we are likely to be in much the same spot six months from now,” he added.
For its part, the government has pledged $100 million towards the deal’s initial implementation and will also attempt to fund “the whole peace process”, said Information Minister Michael Makuei.
This is a change of heart from the previous eight months, in which most of the $285 million budget for the pre-transitional phase went largely unfunded. The government instead allocated millions of dollars of peace funds towards cars and housing renovations for politicians.
“It is unfortunate,” said Denay Chagor, chairman of the opposition South Sudan United Movement. “Four months is enough to get the security arrangements done, but six months is too much [and could lead to] another failure.”
What needs to happen?
Endemic distrust between the warring parties runs deep. To ensure that the deal moves ahead, confidence — particularly between Kiir and Machar — must be built, South Sudan’s UN chief David Shearer said.