Note: This post was written by Enough Project Intern Reed Shafer-Ray.
This week, Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan and the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), swore in Taban Deng Gai as first vice president, replacing former Vice President Riek Machar. The move was denounced by Machar’s followers, and the Enough Project characterized Kiir’s action as a consolidation of power in violation of the peace agreement signed in August of last year.
The backdrop to Taban Deng Gai’s appointment is violence that broke out on July 8th, on the eve of South Sudan’s fifth independence anniversary. More than 300 people were killed amidst explosions and heavy gunfire as government tanks rolled through the streets. The conflict, which came to a head while the country should have been celebrating its nascent nationhood, did not surprise keen observers of South Sudanese affairs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, civil unrest and persistent violence caused by political rivalries over the last three years has led to the displacement of nearly one in four South Sudanese citizens, and it is possible that there will be over 1 million total refugees by the end of the year.
Prior to the onset of violence on July 8th, the SPLM and the SPLM in Opposition (SPLM-IO) grew further apart as the implementation of a peace agreement signed in August 2015 stalled. Worried by this development, international mediators have suggested the deployment of regional peacekeepers to stave off a second civil war. The African Union (AU) called for a supplemental force to bolster the UN’s peacekeeping mission in South Sudan while the east African regional administrative body Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) demanded that the armies of the SPLM and SPLM-IO leave the capital Juba to be replaced by a regional protection force. Meanwhile, some prominent American policymakers have proposed that the AU and UN dissolve the current government and temporarily administer the country. However, Kiir’s government opposes foreign intervention; an SPLM army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang recently declared that “any deployment of a foreign force that is not authorized by the political leadership is going to be resisted.”
Many civil society organizations, however, support the presence of a third force, envisaged to be a buffer between government forces and those of the opposition. The South Sudan Human Rights Society For Advocacy (SSHURSA), along with four other local humanitarian groups, publicly support intervention, stating that: “Our people yearn for peace but our leaders have failed them, and the recent violence in Juba clearly communicates a message of a failed leadership and determination to destroy the Peace Agreement which the parties signed.” SSHURSA congratulated the AU and IGAD for their support of a “third deterrent force” to stabilize the situation, and urged its rapid deployment.
Further, the South Sudan Peace and Reconciliation Commission, a government-sanctioned committee to oversee peacebuilding within the country, asked external actors for help with crisis-management: “We would like to call upon the international community to come into [sic] the intervention of the people of Juba town because after this crisis, people lost a lot of property, food and other items.”
Although recent protests, at least some of which have been organized by President Kiir’s government, have voiced opposition to the proposed foreign intervention, these actions have been critiqued by civil society actors. Edmund Yakani, the executive director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, criticized the demonstrations, saying that those who are protesting do not fully understand the AU proposal and its intentions to stabilize and bring peace to the nation. The chairperson of the civil society organization network in Lakes State (a location of one large protest) opposed military intervention, but encouraged the international community to continue aiding in implementing the 2015 peace agreement.
South Sudanese displaced persons, on the other hand, have accused these civil society groups that oppose military intervention as detractors whose actions are not in the public interest. According to interviews conducted by the South Sudanese news outlet Radio Tamazuj, displaced people living in camps in Bor, Juba, and Malakal support the additional military deployment because, in the words of displaced person Zacharia John Tut, “We need peace because we [have been] in the displacement camp for more than two years.” Tut suggested that those protesting against intervention “do not represent the people of South Sudan but [rather] the government in Juba.”
Taban Deng Gai’s appointment risks widening the schisms between the government and Machar and creates the potential for another renewed large-scale civil war. The international community, local civil society, and the South Sudanese people desire peace and prosperity for the fledgling nation, but without a demonstrated commitment to the 2015 peace agreement, the South Sudan government risks plunging the country back into chaos.