The leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), former Vice President Riek Machar, arrived in Juba on September 9, 2019 to meet with President Salva Kiir in an attempt to work out outstanding issues inhibiting the implementation of the September 2018 peace agreement known as the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCISS). The eight-month pre-transitional period stipulated in the R-ARCISS had expired in May, which led Machar to request a six-month extension until November 12, 2019, when the revitalized transitional government of national unity is expected to be formed in Juba.
What was agreed in this latest meeting?
The two leaders discussed issues related to security arrangements such as the cantonment of the troops, the proposed joint training of the 83,000-strong national army, the national security law, the number of states that should constitute South Sudan and the boundaries of those states, amendments to the constitution and the formation of the revitalized transitional government of national unity on November 12, 2019. While discussing these issues on September 9th, Kiir and Machar reached an understanding on the security arrangements and formation of the government. They also discussed the issue of the number of states on their last day of meeting, but they reached no agreement on that, which prompted them to commit to forming a committee to follow up on this issue and others they had failed to address. In the course of Machar’s visit to Juba, the SPLM-IO agreed to transfer its headquarters to Juba.
What is the assessment of the outcome of this meeting?
In the last six years of civil war in South Sudan, Kiir and Machar have met numerous times to discuss the future of South Sudan, but some of those meetings actually exacerbated the risk of war. Their meeting at the Nyakuron Cultural Center in December 2013 was followed by the outbreak of the civil war two days later. The resumption of the civil war in July 2016 began with shootouts between the bodyguards of the two leaders while they were meeting at the presidential palace. These instances have made some observers less hopeful for a positive outcome emerging from any meeting between the two leaders.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. This meeting is different in a number of aspects. First, a wind of change is blowing tentatively across the region; countries are beginning to be open to exploring the benefits of cooperating.
Civil war presents a serious threat to the realization of economic cooperation among the neighboring countries of East and Central Africa and the benefits that would come from that. Economic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have already become more cordial because Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed an agreement in which Eritrea agreed to give Ethiopia access to its ports on the Red Sea—a gesture which has compelled Ethiopia to respect the 2002 United Nations boundary ruling and award territories to Eritrea.
Secondly, political changes in Sudan have made the continuation of war in South Sudan unattractive for both Kiir and Machar. Following the visit of Sudan’s new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, South Sudan and Sudan seem open to take advantage of the new political dispensation in Sudan to follow the example of Ethiopia and Eritrea in building cordial economic relations while supporting peace initiatives in both countries. For instance, Juba has selected a team to help the warring parties in Sudan end the war there while Khartoum has offered to help in reconciling Kiir and Machar and supporting the September 2018 peace agreement, which was negotiated in Khartoum.
There are many implications for what the two leaders have agreed upon. During the implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement, Machar wanted to have a military presence in cantonment sites strategically located throughout the country, and Kiir resisted this in places like Western Equatoria. The location of forces in that region is viewed as a measure of political support and leverage. The tension this created contributed to the breakdown of the security arrangements in the August 2015 peace agreement, which led to the resumption of war in July 2016. It is important, therefore, that the two leaders reach an agreement on the security arrangements.
The political crisis in Juba disintegrated into an ethnic war between the Dinka and Nuer in December 2013 due to the fractious nature of the national army, which was made up of various components loyal to individual politicians. It is important that the leaders have agreed on the need to transform the army and separate it from these individuals.
While the formation of the government on November 12 will be a step in the right direction, it is to be remembered that competitive corruption among its political elites plunged South Sudan into humanitarian, economic, and political chaos. A mere sharing of political power does not address this root cause of the conflict. The new government has to show progress in ensuring transparency and accountability, particularly in the oil/petroleum sector, concessions and contract awards, budgetary and public expenditure, revenue collection and other relevant matters, in order to be taken seriously both domestically as well as internationally.