[Photo: A wide view of the historic Independence Ceremony of the Republic of South Sudan (UN PHOTO/Eskinder Debebe)]

An uneasy peace descended upon South Sudan in April 2016, when Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—In Opposition (SPLM-IO) and former vice president of South Sudan, returned to the capital Juba after months in hiding and was sworn in as vice president as part of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. The agreement, brokered in Addis Ababa by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), proposed the establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity with a clear mandate based on a power-sharing formula. It included a permanent ceasefire and a transitional security arrangement, and the implementation was to be overseen by the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, made up of various stakeholders, including regional country guarantors and international partners. On July 8, 2016, however, the eve of the country’s fifth independence anniversary, violence broke out between forces loyal to the government and those of Machar.

When the people of South Sudan voted for independence in January 2011, they felt optimistic about rebuilding their country after decades of civil unrest, disenfranchisement, and the ravages of war.[1] By December 2013, though, optimism had given way to a full-blown conflict, leaving many dead, displaced, and wounded. The immediate trigger was, in part, the personal differences between President Salva Kiir and Machar, whom he had dismissed as his vice president the previous July.  IGAD was quick to intervene and mediate between the adversaries, with the backing of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations.

An ethnic dimension was quickly apparent in the clash between Salva Kiir’s Dinka group and Riek Machar’s Nuer community, though some have argued the conflict was, rather, political. The former view is supported by the continuing control of the SPLM government by an oligarchy of former military “big men” drawn largely from the Dinka tribe. Alex de Waal[2] argues that neo-patrimonialism has been SPLM’s greatest challenge, while Clemence Pinaud[3] is of the view that postwar benefits, clientelism, and nepotism are bigger problems. Political competition among three SPLM factions—the SPLM–In Government (SPLM-IG), SPLM–Democratic Change (SPLM-DC), and SPLM-IO—over state control had threatened the Addis Ababa peace talks until the Arusha SPLM reunification agreement was reached under the auspices of Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi.[1]

The Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) began to take shape when Riek Machar became vice president for the second time. His return after almost two years outside South Sudan marked a new beginning for the country. In addition to restoring him as first vice president, the peace agreement made Machar the commander in chief of an army and police force of the SPLM-IO, operating together with a separate army and police force under the command of President Salva Kiir.

The Security Dilemma in Power Sharing

In past-conflict societies, power sharing has been explored as an avenue for building peace. As Dutch scholar Arend Lijphart postulates in his consociational theory, deeply divided societies can help forge national cooperation that can lead to peace.[2] Lijphart illustrates his point with reference to societies characterized by sharp religious, ideological, linguistic, regional, cultural, racial, and/or ethnic segmental cleavages.[3] When South Sudan broke away from Sudan after voting in a referendum in January 2011, some predicted ethnic cleavages were going to be its Achilles’ heel as is seen in the Dinka-Nuer division.

Despite its noble goals, the TGoNU was bound to face its share of difficulties. Two centers of political and military powers have, in effect, eroded the conditions for a sustainable power-sharing arrangement in South Sudan. Some have claimed, for instance, that the SPLM-IG has received substantial military and political backing from Uganda and China, while SPLM-IO has received similar backing from the Sudan government in Khartoum (although Machar has denied receiving any such support).[4]

Scholars such as Caroline Hartzell, Matthew Hoddie, Jack Snyder, and Robert Jervis have explained the instability of negotiated settlements in terms of the concept of the security dilemma, which Snyder and Jervis define as a situation in which a constituent party to a conflict pursues its own security and in the process reduces the security of others.[5] In international relations, the security dilemma has generally denoted the self-defeating aspect of the quest for security in an anarchic system. Although Snyder and Jervis’s postulation is largely focused on states, the security dilemma can apply equally to internal conflict, such as that in South Sudan.


A Return to Violence

 The relapse into factional fighting in Juba on July was rooted in simmering tensions over competing political and military authority, as well as over territorial control. President Kiir swore in Taban Deng Gai as first vice president in place of Riek Machar, noting that Machar had abrogated the peace agreement by leaving the capital. Taban Deng, who previously served as the minister for mining, is a former ally of Machar. This move has further dimmed the prospects for peace now that the SPLM-IO is divided. Machar, speaking from hiding, has contended that Taban Deng Gai’s appointment is “illegal” and has called for a third party force to be deployed in Juba—thus reaffirming the security dilemma in South Sudan.


A Way Forward

Mahmoud Mamdani, a respected authority on Sudan and South Sudan has asserted the need for a second transition in South Sudan.[6] He calls for political justice through political accountability at the individual and society levels by excluding from political office those accountable for the turmoil. This proposal remains idealistic, given the realities of the ethno-political dynamics in South Sudan. As long as antagonists Kiir and Machar continue to dominate the political and military landscape of South Sudan, peace will remain elusive. The AU has endorsed a call by IGAD to strengthen the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as an “African-led” combat brigade to help end the bloodletting in South Sudan.[7] President Kiir is against this idea and has recently claimed the UNMISS was favoring Machar’s side.[8]

Yet the people of South Sudan continue to bear the full brunt of war, as the two leaders jostle for power. The international community needs to do a lot through multilateral means to help avert any further descent into chaos in Africa’s newest independent state. The AU can borrow from the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), authorized by the UN Security Council, which was tasked to neutralize armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was transformative in the field of peacekeeping. A similar AU-led brigade in South Sudan will no doubt help to bring about sustainable peace

[1] Ibid.

[2] Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The East African, “Irresistible Rise of Machar, the Rebel with a ‘World View,’” http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Irresistible-rise-of-Machar–the-rebel-with-a–world-view-/2558-3297430-12kin38z/index.html, accessed July 21, 2016.

[5] Jack Snyder and Robert Jervis, “Civil War and the Security Dilemma,” in Civil Wars, Insecurity and Intervention, ed. Barbara F. Walter, and Jack Snyder, 15–37 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[6] The East African, “Who’s to Blame for the Political Violence in South Sudan? What Is the Way Forward?” http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/OpEd/comment/434750-3297426-uxh634z/index.html, accessed July 21, 2016.

[7] The East African, “AU Mulls Over Military Operation in South Sudan,” http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/AU-ponders-sending-troops-to-South-Sudan/2558-3299872-akb6fwz/index.html, accessed July 21, 2016.

[8] Washington Post, “In South Sudan, Bodies Are Being Counted as Peace Accord Appears to Unravel,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/in-south-sudan-bodies-are-being-counted-as-peace-accord-appears-to-unravel/2016/07/14/df70f584-4931-11e6-8dac-0c6e4accc5b1_story.html, accessed July 21, 2016.