[Originally written 30 January]
Peace talks between the Government of South Sudan and its opposition within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) facilitated by the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) started in Addis Ababa in early January. On the 23rd the parties signed an agreement of cessation of hostilities committing to “cease all military actions aimed at each other and any other action that might undermine the peace process.” They also committed to an Agreement of the Status of the Detainees regarding the future of the politicians held in Juba since violence escalated in late December last year. However, signatures do not equate stability or termination of violence; violations of the agreement were reported already 25 January.
The distinction between a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities must be borne in mind. A cease-fire tends to be part of a binding peace agreement and violations have severe consequences. A cessation of hostilities is a temporary pause in military engagement with limited options for sanctioning outbreaks of violence. Even more so than a cease-fire, a cessation of hostilities depends on political will to succeed. Moreover, the agreement is only signed by the delegation leaders, Taban Deng and Nhial Deng Nhial, rather than by the President Salva Kiir and the opposition leader Riek Machar. Ratification by the latter two will in itself strengthen the agreement and send a clear signal to the forces on each side of the conflict.
The parties are still far from a comprehensive political solution and there seems to be a lack of commitment to compromise among the South Sudanese political leaders. Rather than a final settlement, the agreements represent an opening to further peace negotiations. The agreement on detainees outlines a political process under the auspices of IGAD where the parties welcome an all-inclusive dialogue and they commit to the outcome of the peace process. Further, a national reconciliation process is to be established, “in which the detainees and other political actors, civil society organisations, traditional and religious leaders have a significant role to play.” The implementation of these paragraphs will depend on a broad and inclusive approach. Parts of South Sudan’s political establishment stand outside the conflict, and most of the violence have so far been limited to the capital of Juba and states within Greater Upper Nile (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity). A reshuffling of political power needs to include influential parties who have abstained from fighting. The existence of a broad and concerned intelligentsia is evidenced by the request for a national dialogue recently published by the Citizens for Peace and Justice. As they highlight, to obtain peace, South Sudan needs democratic reforms and open legitimate institutions. The agreements signed in Addis represent only a step on the long road towards these goals.
The agreement reflects the opposition’s limited negotiation power as it has found no external sponsor, is short on supplies, and has lost the state capitals it temporarily controlled (Bor, Malakal, Bentiu). In the agreements signed in Addis Ababa the government does not give any political concessions or binding commitments to policy reform. Unless the subsequent process rapidly gains momentum there is little incentive for the opposition to adhere to an agreement where nothing but recognition as a negotiation partner is won. If armed youth and soldiers in the region of Greater Upper Nile do not see actual improvements to their lives or convincing concessions being made, a paper signed by the negotiation leaders may seem an insufficient reason to lay down arms. Riek Machar and the other politicians on the rebel side might instead lose credibility and hold over the armed groups supposedly under their control.
The lack of commitment and the opposition’s weak position is reflected not only in the agreement, but also in the effort to fulfil it. On 28 January the government answered to their commitment “to undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees” by releasing “on bail” seven detainees, noticeably those less threatening to the government. Within this group former Minister of Cabinet Affairs Deng Alor is the odd one out. He is a political heavy-weight with considerable influence within the Abyei constituency and he has been under investigation for corruption since July 2003 – an investigation which was probably motivated by the ongoing power struggle. Since Abyei has so far stood outside the conflict, it might be that Salva Kiir by releasing Deng Alor hopes to gain the support of this strategic group. Prominent politicians within the group of detainees were not released and are awaiting trial for treason and planning a coup attempt. Riek Machar, Taban Deng and two other politicians at large are presented with the same charges. This attempt by the current Government of South Sudan to give the political rift within the SPLM/A a legalistic hue muddles the water of what should be a political process.