South Sudan: IGAD (and the international community) at a crossroads

The renewed outbreak of fighting in the South Sudanese capital Juba over the last two weeks brings back painful memories of when the civil war started, back in 2013. Just as then, the world looks at the regional states to respond who, unlike the US, UK, Russia, or China, acutely suffer as a result of the mass influx of refugees, loss of investment and trade, and implications for regional security. Read the analysis written by Luuk van de Vondervoort, Arms Expert on the UN Panel of Experts for South Sudan until June 2016.

On last 20th July the AU endorsed a plan from the IGAD Heads of State that would help stabilise the situation by sending in extra troops from the region under a reinforced mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS, backed up by an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on the politicians and generals undermining the peace process. The idea is reminiscent of the UN-mandated Force Intervention Brigade in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that fought the M-23 movement in Eastern DRC.

These measures are far from uncontroversial. President Salva Kiir has forcefully resisted the idea of placing responsibility for security in Juba in the hands of a foreign force and he has publicly scorned President Kenyatta for supporting the idea. However, backtracking will be costly: after the AU already had to swallow its pride earlier this year in Burundi, the credibility of both IGAD and the AU as shepherds of the South Sudanese peace process is at stake. Nevertheless the intervention brigade is far from a hopeless cause; just last year the IGAD-led mediation was able to overcome Kiir’s reluctance to accept a unity government with Machar when the heads of state jointly exerted pressure. On this issue South Sudan can hardly afford to defy the region if it acts as a genuine collective.

However, just like with the unity government, the actual problems may start only then. The current round of violence has again laid bare the tensions and grievances that underpin the South Sudanese political system. It is telling that reappointing the same old guard as ministers was heralded as the standout achievement of a flawed peace process. Aside from the already daunting obstacles that existed at the signing of the agreement in 2015, new rounds of fighting across the country, a deep economic crisis, and a state that is by all textbook definitions bankrupt have made the prospect of implementation fade at an alarming pace. Rushing in with a military force, no matter how well equipped, will not work if its job is to salvage a process that is beyond salvation.

South Sudan is no Democratic Republic of the Congo. The MONUSCO brigade was a military solution in support of a political objective: eliminating the M-23 and extending state authority into Eastern DRC. In South Sudan it is far less clear what goals an intervention brigade is supposed to serve. Would ‘stabilisation’ mean protecting civilians? To defend Kiir’s government? Or to push out a number of hardliners on both sides? No doubt Desalegn, Kenyatta, Museveni and Bashir will each have different answers to these questions. But without a plan on what the immediate and medium-term political future of South Sudan should look like, intervention would at best be short-lived and meaningless and in the worst case drawn out and costly, reminiscent of the faithful decisions by the US to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

The conundrum is that if IGAD’s constituent members want to maintain some sort of grip on the situation then time is of the essence. At this point the luxury to carefully think through the different political options may no longer exist. Unless of course instead of the cobbled together solution the region’s leaders now make it seem, this is the Plan B IGAD has had lying on a shelve for months.

And frankly, it should have a plan. The region, as well as the AU and the Troika of the US, UK, and Norway understandably stood behind the agreement it helped facilitate, negotiate and (depending on your perspective) impose. But ever since the start of negotiations back in early 2014 there were plenty of signs that both the Government in Juba and the Opposition were reluctantly engaged in the process and frequently outright defiant. While negotiating both sides continued to fight, obstruct aid, and undermine efforts at peace, culminating in a murderous offensive in Unity State that employed a scorched earth tactic and led to thousands of civilian deaths. After the agreement was signed, Salva Kiir, in a cynical attempt to reverse some of the deal’s key provisions, decreed the redivision of the country into 28 states. Meanwhile violence continued to spread and Riek Machar kept coming up with excuses to delay coming to Juba while scouting for new recruits in different parts of the country. IGAD monitors had limited access to verify allegations of ceasefire violations and were even detained by government security forces.

When the Transitional Government of National Unity was finally formed in April, it was in effect neither united nor governing, leaving the critical economic, political, and humanitarian problems facing the country unattended. Instead, the parties kept themselves busy squabbling over appointments and interpretations of phrasings in the agreement that they then referred back to IGAD — ostensibly forgetting that the region’s heads of state also had their own countries to run. Even the firmest believer in the good intentions of the parties should have understood since at least late 2015, when deadline after deadline was missed, that it would be wise to draw up an alternative.

The problem was not merely that there was no plan B, credible or not. It was that both parties, the SPLM, and the Opposition, were painfully aware of its absence. IGAD, the AU, and the UN Security Council on numerous occasions issued warnings of potential repercussions, including targeted sanctions and an arms embargo. But these were never acted upon and Kiir, Machar, and the hardliners around them quickly realised these were really empty threats. They knew that they could effectively manipulate the diplomats by threatening to withdraw and fight. After all, when push came to shove the two of them were needed to sign on the dotted line.

Now the region has a chance to show its resolve and demonstrate it will no longer tolerate those clearly not in favour of peace. But military might is far from a silver bullet and it will need to be backed up by a political plan that looks beyond the usual suspects in Juba or the warlords holding the guns. It is an endeavour that deserves the voices and requires the empowerment of the many South Sudanese, high and low, who are genuinely committed to peace. It also means offering a vision of a different political arrangement than the one that is based on an elite pact to divide the spoils of war and the resources of the country.

There are alternatives, and they have been around ever since the fighting broke out. But at this point, not having that plan B is not just an omission; its a diplomatic blunder on the part of the guarantors of the peace agreement, the costs for which have to be borne by the people of South Sudan.

By Luuk van de Vondervoort

© (Italy), Addis Fortune (Ethiopia)

Luuk van de Vondervoort was until last month the Arms Expert on the UN Panel of Experts for South Sudan. He has worked extensively in East and Central Africa, including as an advisor on arms control to the South Sudan Ministry of Interior.

This article was published in the framework of an editorial project co-financed by Directorate General for Globalization and Global Issues (DGMO) of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI), gathering 25 African independent media.