Since fighting erupted in Juba in July 2016 and a major rebel faction returned to war, rebel groups have proliferated though conflict is much reduced from its height in 2014. The government’s current strategy can secure Juba but cannot deliver sustainable nationwide peace. Of the millions experiencing hunger due to the conflict’s impact on civilians, the UN declared 100,000 in famine conditions for several months in 2017. Through field-based research and engagement with relevant national, regional and international actors, Crisis Group aims to support humanitarian access and build a new consensus around sustainable peace efforts that address the regionalised nature of the conflict as well as its localised dynamics.
In the years right after apartheid fell, South Africa was a leader in continental diplomacy, brokering peace accords and bolstering multilateral institutions. Its role subsequently diminished, but today it is well placed to make a positive difference in several trouble spots.
Negotiations between President Kiir and former rebel leader turned VP Riek Machar over local power-sharing stalled, raising concerns over stability of unity govt, while ceasefire with holdout rebel groups in south broke down; intercommunal violence persisted. In meeting in capital Juba 13 April, Kiir and Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) failed to reach compromise over appointment of state governors; Machar maintained peace deal entitles SPLA-IO to nominate three governors, while Kiir said only two; Machar 15 April turned down Kiir’s proposal to appoint caretaker governors. Several SPLA-IO members 16 April defected to Kiir, blaming Machar for turning movement into “family dynasty”. Implementation of transitional security arrangements remained stalled after committee overseeing unification of armed groups into single army late-March suspended process to prevent spread of COVID-19. Negotiations between unity govt and opposition coalition, South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA), which refused to be part of Sept 2018 deal, remained suspended as govt failed to appoint new delegates. Truce brokered in Jan between govt and non-signatory armed groups broke down in Central Equatoria region in south after SSOMA rebel group National Salvation Front (NAS) 9 April attacked Machar’s SPLA-IO forces in Kirinya, Yei River County; number of casualties unknown. SPLA-IO and Kiir-aligned South Sudan People’s Defense Forces reportedly clashed with NAS in Yei, Morobo and Kajo Keji counties 26 April, number of casualties unknown. Intercommunal violence continued in several areas, killing at least 65 throughout month. In Abyei region, disputed between South Sudan and Sudan, ethnic Dinka and nomadic Misseriya herders clashed 9-11 April, leaving at least six killed; Sudan and South Sudan 30 April agreed to cooperate to end violence there. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, govt 21 April ordered release of 1,400 inmates to reduce prison overcrowding and extended partial lockdown until further notice.
South Sudan’s conflict parties are supposed to form a unity government by 12 November. But key disputes between them remain unresolved. External actors should push the adversaries to make progress on these matters before entering any power-sharing arrangement – lest war erupt once more.
The truce in South Sudan is holding but could break down at any time. To stave off renewed civil war, external actors should urge the belligerents to strike new bargains on security and internal boundaries – and accept a third-party protection force for the capital.
In 2018, the African Union (AU) and its new Assembly Chairperson President Paul Kagame of Rwanda have the chance to push ahead with much-needed institutional reforms. But the AU must not lose focus on dire conflicts and defusing potential electoral violence.
Vigilante groups have been successful in providing local security. But subcontracting security functions to vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes is a dangerous option for fragile African states. African leaders should set clear objectives and mandates when enlisting vigilantes and invest in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs.
China, traditionally averse to intervening abroad, is testing the role of peacebuilder in South Sudan, where it has unique leverage. This could portend a growing global security role, but further Chinese engagement will likely be tempered by self-interest, capacity constraints and aversion to risk.
War in South Sudan led the UN to declare 100,000 people are suffering famine, with a further 5.5 million at risk. This special briefing urges the country to work harder to establish parameters for a ceasefire. At the same time, humanitarian corridors from Sudan should be kept open and donors must fully fund the UN aid appeal.
The disagreement between Kiir and Machar has endangered the gains made toward a lasting peace.
"[South Sudan president Kiir and former rebel leader Machar] still have much to work through, but Machar was unlikely to extract more significant concessions before forming the government.
[In South Sudan] the dispute over the configuration of states became a major impasse blocking the peace process from moving towards a unity government.
The U.S. has gone from South Sudan’s chief backer to its main naysayer.
The intensity of the violence shows just how great South Sudan’s challenges remain even in a best-case scenario of the national peace process solidifying.
The South Sudan peace process is at serious risk of derailing following the UNSC visit to Juba. The strategy to simply pressure on Nov 12 deadline has already failed. It’s time to pivot.
Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for South Sudan Alan Boswell recounts what he found during his recent field trip to South Sudan.
South Sudan’s rival parties have temporarily salvaged prospects for peace, agreeing a six-month deadline extension to allow for the formation of a unity government. But the country’s external partners must sustain pressure on both sides to preserve a ceasefire and maintain consensus on a path forward.
In 2019, the African Union faces many challenges, with conflicts old and new simmering across the continent. To help resolve these crises – our annual survey lists seven particularly pressing ones – the regional organisation should also push ahead with institutional reforms.