Toward a Viable Future for South Sudan

By International Crisis Group

Ten years after independence, South Sudan is faring poorly, beleaguered by political and socio-economic ills. The civil war’s two main antagonists have an uneasy peace, but others fight on. The country needs a reset rooted in power sharing and devolution of authority from the centre.

What’s new? In February 2020, South Sudan’s two main belligerents began forming a unity government pursuant to a peace deal inked a year and a half earlier. But the pact is fragile, smaller conflicts are still ablaze and the threat of return to full-blown civil war remains.

Why does it matter? Forthcoming elections could test the peace deal severely. Looking further ahead, conflict will continue to plague South Sudan until its leaders forge a political system that distributes power more widely. The cost of cyclical fighting since 2013 has been steep: hundreds of thousands dead and millions uprooted from their homes.

What should be done? South Sudan’s leaders should strengthen pre-election power sharing and broaden the peace deal to include other parties. They should not rush to polls, if conflict looms, and seek a political settlement decentralising governance and cementing national power sharing. Civil society and external partners should continually advocate for these steps.

Executive Summary
Fêted at birth a decade ago, South Sudan is failing. It suffered a brutal civil war from 2013 to 2018, exposing a country whose foundations were weaker and divisions deeper than its well-wishers envisioned. The war has quietened thanks to a peace deal, signed in 2018 by the two main belligerents. But the path to stability is unclear. Not only could the pact collapse, but it does little to calm an insurgency in the nation’s south or local violence elsewhere. Elections looming as soon as 2022 threaten to inflame tensions between its signatories. Moreover, South Sudan’s winner-take-all political system ill suits a country that requires consensus among major blocs to avert cyclical power struggles. South Sudanese need to get through elections, which may well require some form of pre-election power-sharing pact. They also need a revised political settlement. While prospects of that for now appear slim, the country’s reform-minded elites, civil society and external partners should still work toward fairer power sharing at the centre and greater devolution.

While the country’s stark development needs were apparent at independence, South Sudanese and outsiders significantly downplayed its political woes, especially its ethnic cleavages. That proved a mistake. Just two years after the triumphal inauguration of the world’s newest country in July 2011, South Sudan collapsed at the centre, as the rival camps loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar turned against each other in bloody combat that shattered the ruling party. The resultant fighting, which has mostly taken place along ethnic lines, has killed as many as 400,000 people. Since the 2018 peace deal, which moved forward in February 2020 when Kiir and Machar agreed to form a unity government, the ceasefire between the two main warring parties has held but the pact has accomplished little else.

With the country so broken, the first challenge is maintaining and expanding upon the ceasefire. The peace process requires endless maintenance by external actors, notably East African leaders, with their attentions consumed by efforts to prevent a slide back to war between the two chief factions. Meanwhile, groups that fought under Machar’s banner could well split off and return to conflict. Communal violence in parts of the country is running up the death count, particularly in remote rural areas. An insurgency led by Thomas Cirillo, a veteran general in the South’s previous struggle against Khartoum, has also taken root in the southern Equatoria region, including near the capital Juba, and risks spreading. Regional and other diplomacy aimed at bolstering the ceasefire between Kiir and Machar is critical, but those involved should do what they can to prevent splinter conflicts and broaden the peace process to include Cirillo.

The next hurdle is preventing renewed violence in the run-up to or aftermath of promised elections. The polls are expected to pit Kiir’s coalition against Machar’s in what some call a final showdown. That the peace deal culminates in such a winner-take-all contest is a potentially fatal flaw. Even if fighting does not erupt before the polls, as occurred in 2013 when Kiir’s faction exchanged fire with Machar’s, setting off the civil war, an all-or-nothing vote risks dissolving the agreement’s political settlement by locking the losers out of power. Regional leaders and other external actors have to tread a fine line: pushing South Sudanese parties toward elections while showing flexibility when necessary to create space for them to reach consensus on key decisions. At the same time, they should keep a watchful eye on pre-election dynamics and encourage dialogue between Kiir and Machar. If the poll looks set to be fraught, particularly if, as appears likely, both men decide to run, regional leaders should push for a pre-election deal that guarantees a share of power to the loser.

Getting past the vote without a descent into further violence will be hard enough, but the bigger challenge lies in finding a settlement among South Sudanese that lays the groundwork for a sustainable peace. Regional leaders and diplomats are short of ideas as to how to steer South Sudan out of its pattern of peace deals that fall apart. They privately express little optimism or vision for South Sudan’s future. Nor is such a vision to be found among South Sudan’s major donors, which also once championed its cause and now foot the huge humanitarian bills, if not the ultimate costs, for its failings.

Solutions could be found in the reshaping of South Sudan’s political architecture toward more consensual forms of governance.

Solutions could be found in the reshaping of South Sudan’s political architecture toward more consensual forms of governance. Constitutionally, the country is a majoritarian democracy. Yet in practice, peace in South Sudan requires consensus among elites and communities, which often mobilise as well-armed ethno-political blocs, notably within Kiir’s Dinka people, the nation’s largest, Machar’s Nuer, the next largest, and Equatorians, a diffuse grouping of ethnicities in the nation’s south. Even the concept of a centralised state in South Sudan butts against the reality of a country lacking basic institutions and infrastructure including roads. Maintaining stability is impossible without broad accommodation.

A more durable political settlement requires reducing the winner-take-all stakes. Options could include institutionalised power sharing at the centre or an elite bargain to rotate power among key ethno-political groups or regions. Some form of decentralisation is almost certainly necessary. Such remedies cannot cure all the country’s ills, but they might provide its elites a sense of shared interest that has eluded them over decades of brutal conflict. Prospects for such reform for now appear slim, with powerful elites, including Kiir and Machar themselves, for the most part opposed. Still, until space opens for official dialogue on reform, South Sudanese civil forces should advance discussions in whatever venue they can, including outside the state arena. South Sudan’s external partners should be ready to facilitate such dialogue, if asked. Long-term peace in South Sudan almost certainly requires the country’s leaders to agree on a more equitable division of power and resources, no matter how long it takes them to do so.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 10 February 2021
I. Introduction
Peer deep, then deeper, and the number of South Sudan’s problems only appears to grow. Years of civil war have devastated the country, leaving up to 400,000 people dead and displacing four million– one in every three South Sudanese – either inside the country or across its borders.South Sudan requires massive food aid to prevent chronic famine. Its politicians have plundered oil revenue that many hoped would pay for a brighter future. The country lacks the most basic infrastructure. Despite a 2018 peace deal, including a ceasefire between the main belligerents that has largely held, violence blights large swathes of the country, with ruling elites never far from turning against each other and going back to war.

South Sudan is thus often absorbed in trying to keep its head above water. Its foreign partners, fatigued by conflict and aid bills, must apply recurrent pressure on parties to stop fighting or to stick to a peace deal. National elections loom as early as 2022, worrying officials and diplomats who wonder if the country will be ready, that is, if the unity government that brought President Salva Kiir and his arch-rival Riek Machar together in 2020 has not imploded by then due to disputes between them, including over the poll itself. Amid the constant efforts to halt violence, ward off starvation, keep the stuttering peace deal on track and push the country toward a vote, outside powers as well as many South Sudanese seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability in South Sudan.

SPLM/A-IO bodyguards and commanders in rebel-held Ganyiel, Unity state, August 2017.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

A strategy for escaping the current quagmire must go beyond conflict mitigation to address South Sudan’s failed political model, which concentrates authority in the centre and unleashes a king-of-the-hill power scramble. The winner-take-all governance system fuels constant tensions among elites, already sore from decades of bloody infighting, leaving the country vulnerable to relapse into war. Many community, rebel and religious leaders, government officials and women’s groups across the country express not only deep frustration with the national leadership but also the belief that the solution lies in greater autonomy and representation for South Sudan’s diverse communities and regions. They echo tenets of the liberation movement that preceded the country’s 2011 secession from Sudan: decentralisation, enshrined in the first constitution, and the promise that South Sudanese would share the country as equals. Shared and devolved power might be a credible path out of crisis, albeit one strewn with obstacles – notably, elites who often conduct themselves more as war entrepreneurs than statesmen.

This report proposes strategies for addressing South Sudan’s immediate problems and then takes a longer view, charting options for the country to escape its perennial cycles of conflict. Research involved dozens of interviews across South Sudan, in Horn of Africa capitals and in New York, Washington, Brussels and London, as well as by remote means.

II. Tortured History, Troubled Present
On 9 July 2011, thousands of South Sudanese thronged the capital of what would soon be Africa’s 54th state to celebrate their independence and what many hoped would be the capstone of a five-decade struggle for liberation from successive repressive governments in Khartoum. South Sudanese had voted by a landslide in a referendum six months earlier to carve out a new state from Sudan following protracted talks between South Sudanese leaders and representatives of Omar al-Bashir’s Khartoum administration.

Despite the joy on display at the independence celebrations, few thought the road ahead would be easy or smooth. South Sudan at its outset was a place of abject underdevelopment and hardship, with many of its citizens’ daily lives marked by chronic hunger, rampant insurgent violence and security force brutality. The plight of women was especially dire, with maternal health and female education scores among the worst in the world. Years after independence, a South Sudanese girl was still more likely to die in childbirth than to finish school, according to the UN.

Perhaps even more pernicious than the development challenges were deep ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the triumphalism that accompanied the new nation’s founding.

Perhaps even more pernicious than the development challenges were deep ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the triumphalism that accompanied the new nation’s founding. South Sudanese had fought a destructive conflict for decades both against the Sudanese government in Khartoum and, more often than not, against each other. Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, today South Sudan’s president and vice president, respectively, fought each other on rival sides, mobilising combatants from the Dinka (Kiir) and Nuer (Machar) ethnic groups, from 1991 until 2002. During this period, many other armed groups in South Sudan took part in the factional melee.

South Sudan’s 437-page development blueprint – published a month after independence and described by the finance minister as “the first comprehensive plan for the Republic of South Sudan” was blunt about the prospects of overcoming ethnic and political divisions:

There remains deeply rooted tribal animosity. This has been identified as one of the ongoing causes of ethnic conflicts, created by distinct identity clashes and perceived dominance in social and political space. Some communities thus feel superior and others feel inferior and marginalised. Peacebuilding will require embracing diversity and finding ways for communities to live and work together in harmony.

Still, at independence, most South Sudanese officials and outsiders seemed oblivious to the danger that the country’s elites would hurt its chances with violent power struggles, despite their long history of infighting. The country’s development plan envisaged that ethnic and political animosity might lead to local violence but did not foresee civil war or state collapse. A “worst-case scenario” imagined by the UN and U.S. considered the risk that a repressive one-party petrostate might emerge and fight border wars with neighbouring Sudan, but it shied away from predictions of implosion.

Donors thus devoted their efforts to strengthening the central government through capacity building and military reforms, believing that in time South Sudan would be resilient enough that the private sector would want to invest in the country more heavily. The UN Security Council explicitly tasked the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to deploy a peacekeeping operation focusing mostly on supporting the country’s institutions. Major donors, led by the U.S., lined up to help, to the tune of billions of dollars. The UN, U.S. and UK especially underwrote efforts to help the government mould the country’s many militias into a professional army.

Political rally for General Johnson Olony in then-rebel-held Wau Shilluk in April 2016.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

But South Sudan plunged into civil war, nevertheless. The political waters appeared calm just after independence, perhaps because South Sudan’s new ruling-party leaders were bound together by illicit self-enrichment from leaky state coffers. Soon enough, however, the scars of decades of internecine conflict reopened. The loose alliance that held the ruling party together began to unravel as the clique associated with Kiir’s home area and Dinka kin tightened its grip on the levers of government and the party. As power became concentrated in fewer hands, this circle grew more prone to wielding repression and violence in order to keep it. Those targeted or squeezed out saw few options for redress other than taking up arms.

South Sudan’s quick disintegration into political fratricide and ethnic violence thus did not come from nowhere.

South Sudan’s quick disintegration into political fratricide and ethnic violence thus did not come from nowhere. It was born of deeply poisoned internal politics that evolved over decades of struggle against Khartoum.

A. Decades of Cleavages
There was a time prior to South Sudan’s independence when its elites appeared unified in purpose. In the 1950s, a distinct nationalism brought together various political factions in what is today South Sudan. They opposed the terms of Sudan’s own independence in 1956, arguing that Britain’s decision to attach the South’s largely non-Muslim and Black African peoples to the majority-Muslim North would end in neglect by Khartoum.

But the South’s own latent political divides soon opened up. Southern solidarity began to dissolve when Joseph Lagu, who had led the South’s first insurgency (the so-called Anyanya) and signed a 1972 peace agreement granting the area autonomy, campaigned to subdivide the new entity into its three colonial-era provinces – Equatoria, Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile – after he lost the leadership position to Abel Alier, an ethnic Dinka, in assembly elections in 1980. Backed by politicians in his native Equatoria region, Lagu argued that the Dinka, the South’s biggest ethnic group, unduly dominated Southern politics. He pushed for the South to be broken up to dilute what he considered the Dinka’s excessive power.

Sudan’s president, Jaafar Nimeiri, exploited these divisions. Siding with Lagu in 1983, he split the South into three regions, dissolving the autonomous government created by the 1972 deal. Amid Southern infighting, Nimeiri also declared that Islamic law would apply throughout Sudan. These moves led to widespread unrest and the creation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), headed by John Garang, an ethnic Dinka, who led the South’s second insurgency against Khartoum.

Even as Garang presented himself as representative of all Southerners against Khartoum’s rule, the South remained internally divided. Many Equatorians viewed the SPLM as a Dinka force opposed to the newly formed Equatoria region. Together with other minority groups, they felt alienated by abuses committed by Dinka-dominated forces against them. The SPLM also broke up into multiple factions after Machar, then a top ethnic Nuer SPLM commander, challenged Garang’s leadership in 1991, creating a split that led to years of ethnic wars, primarily involving Dinka and Nuer – a preview, in some ways, of South Sudan’s civil war that began in 2013. Khartoum continued to exploit these divisions, supporting proxy and splinter forces against Garang’s SPLM across the South, while Garang leveraged regional backing and Western support to amplify his own power internally.

Divisions persisted even after war ended.

Divisions persisted even after war ended. The 2005 peace deal between Sudan and the South, brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional bloc, set the South on course for its independence referendum. But many Nuer and other minority anti-SPLM militias across the South remained outside the agreement. Some of them remained explicitly aligned with Khartoum.

B. Pre-independence Inclusion, Post-independence Exclusion

After Garang’s sudden death in 2005, Kiir took over the SPLM and pursued a big tent strategy of political inclusion. He worked to bring Southern factions together primarily by handing out plum positions and cash in a massive petrodollar-fuelled arrangement.This approach worked to some degree. In 2006, he negotiated the Juba Declaration with the SPLM’s main enemy in the South, the South Sudan Defence Forces, led by Paulino Matip, who then came to Juba as South Sudan’s deputy commander-in-chief until his death years later. Current and former SPLM dissidents also joined Kiir in Juba, attracted by the oil riches in the treasury and the shared aim of secession from Sudan. Tens of thousands of fighters from a collection of disparate militias joined the ranks of the South’s military, still known then by its rebel moniker, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Kiir’s accommodation strategy reached its apex in 2010, during the run-up to the South’s independence vote. While several new insurgencies sprang up, led by disgruntled local leaders who would soon be armed by Khartoum, Kiir managed to contain the fallout by once again promising to broaden the tent. In October 2010, just months ahead of the independence vote, he hosted an “all parties” political conference in Juba with 23 parties, negotiating a ceasefire with insurgent forces by promising the opposition a broad-based interim government and an inclusive constitutional review process once independence was achieved.

After the January 2011 referendum, the interlude of South Sudanese unity dissipated almost immediately. Independence secured, the SPLM, still led by Kiir and Machar, moved quickly to monopolise power, dishonouring its October 2010 deal with other parties. Just days after the referendum vote, Kiir renewed military offensives against opposition forces, breaking the ceasefire. The ruling party then ignored the rest of its commitments in the 2010 pact, including the inclusive constitutional review and the broad-based interim government.

The SPLM elites then trained their sights upon one another as they jockeyed for the country’s all-important presidency. Since many party insiders viewed Kiir as an interim leader following Garang’s death, he came under frequent leadership challenges from senior party opponents who hoped to rule in his place. These opponents included Machar, then his deputy, and the party’s secretary general, Pagan Amum. With tensions boiling over, Kiir postponed a March 2013 party conference, then sacked Machar as vice president that July and dismissed many other top cabinet and party officials.

The dispute split the party elite into three main factions, largely along the ethnic and geographical lines that later defined the contours of the civil war’s early period. Kiir drew his core support largely from prominent Dinka from Bahr el Ghazal, while Machar commanded the loyalties of influential Nuer, with a separate, ethnically heterogenous challenge led by SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum from the late Garang’s faction of party elites, including some from Garang’s Greater Bor Dinka community. Rather than agreeing on how South Sudanese could share power, the country’s most powerful elite had instead entered a mad scramble for it.

The UN-protected “Protection of Civilians” (PoC) displaced camp outside Juba, South Sudan, where thousands of South Sudanese, predominantly ethnic Nuer, fled to for protection at the outbreak of the country’s civil war in December 2013. June 2016. CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

The result was civil war. When SPLM delegates finally met to choose their leader in December 2013, after repeated delays, Machar and Kiir’s other key rivals boycotted the session, accusing the president of rigging the process for the party’s presidential nomination in his favour. Shots rang out on the evening of 15 December, as Dinka and Nuer elements of the elite presidential guard tasked with protecting both Kiir and Machar exchanged fire. Gunmen loyal to Kiir scoured Juba for ethnic Nuer, massacring civilians, while Nuer forces fled to the bush, later forming the SPLM/A-In Opposition under Machar.

C. A Shaky Peace
The war dragged on for years. After bitter fighting and failed talks, Machar returned to the capital in April 2016 under an initial peace deal, with over a thousand fighters in tow, but he fled again three months later after fresh clashes broke out between the rival forces in Juba. Government forces pursued him for weeks until he and his remaining guard of near-starving fighters crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN airlifted him to safety. Under pressure from the Obama administration, which at the time hoped to push Machar out of politics, regional countries arranged for him to be placed under de facto house arrest in South Africa, where he sought medical treatment. This arrangement, however, failed to stem the Machar-led insurgency against Kiir, which spread into Equatoria and western Bahr el Ghazal, areas where Kiir’s forces had already launched devastating scorched-earth counter-insurgencies.

Peace talks did not resume until late 2017, when regional governments realised again that there was no clear path to ending the war except by bringing Machar back to the negotiating table.

Peace talks did not resume until late 2017, when regional governments realised again that there was no clear path to ending the war except by bringing Machar back to the negotiating table. After months of futile attempts to recreate a unity government, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed handed the mediation over to Sudan’s then-president, Omar al-Bashir, who worked with Kiir’s ally, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, to push the two sides to compromise. The parties surprised many by quickly settling into a ceasefire after signing a September 2018 accord laying out the timeline for formation of a unity government.

Getting to the unity government, however, has been a slog. Kiir and Machar failed to unify their forces and form a unity government by May 2019 as promised, as the mediator Bashir fell to a popular uprising capped by a coup. The two South Sudan leaders missed another deadline to form the unity government in November 2019, before regional leaders, headed by the new Khartoum government, brokered Machar’s entry into the power-sharing arrangement in February 2020. While the ceasefire has largely held, nearly all its provisions – including unification of forces into a single army, establishment of a new national assembly, creation of a transitional court of justice and economic reforms, to name but a few – remain unfulfilled.

D. Shattered Country, Shattered Plans
South Sudan’s horrific civil war exposed how the young country still requires broad political consensus to hold together. At independence, South Sudan’s presidential system lacked negotiated norms to ensure that those outside power had an incentive to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it. As SPLM ruling elites competed for oil funds, they also fell out with one another. The result was state collapse. The peace deals that followed have not overcome the problem of political exclusion, as Kiir has dominated the levers of government and oil revenues under power-sharing arrangements that have quickly eroded. Rather than the unitary state donors envisaged, the country now more closely resembles a Wild West contested by armed factions.

Donors, stunned by the scale and ferocity of the country’s epic collapse and then fatigued by the years-long effort to keep South Sudanese alive while trying to end the war, now regularly admit that they have no clear plan for finding peace, despite the substantial sums still devoted to humanitarian aid. Disgust with the country’s elite is especially palpable in Washington, where many considered themselves South Sudan’s “midwife” due to their support for the SPLM.Donors eventually suspended the state-building project altogether and are unsure whether and how to restart it, given their deep aversion to assistance that strengthens the hand of the now-despised elite class.Regional neighbours that backed South Sudan’s independence bid now primarily hope to prevent another collapse, but they have shown little interest in the peace deal since Machar returned to Juba and are now preoccupied with the crisis in Ethiopia, the lynchpin of the Horn.

South Sudanese across ethnic lines acknowledge that their country is troubled at its core. They describe deep and polarising ethnic divisions, both at the national and local levels, and a leadership class that has lost the people’s trust. Ideally, South Sudan would start over, taking seriously the profound frailty revealed by its rapid political implosion, while also confronting head-on the scale of new and renewed challenges created by the war, including deepened divisions and widespread destruction. A new roadmap must start with bolstering and widening the current ceasefires, and preparing for elections, but it must also look much farther ahead if South Sudan is to find a path toward a more durable political settlement.

The commander of the ethnic Shilluk “Agwelek” militia, part of Riek Machar’s SPLM/A-IO opposition coalition, near Tonga, Upper Nile. October 2019.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

III. Fighting Fires
Given the obstacles to resolving South Sudan’s core political problems, the government and its external partners are right to focus heavily on keeping the peace. Their immediate priorities are to maintain the ceasefire between the main belligerents Kiir and Machar and thus to prevent a return to wider war. To bolster the ceasefire, the authorities and civil actors, especially religious leaders, who frequently mediate peace at the grassroots, should also call for and develop local political settlements to calm down other hotspots and stop various conflicts from splintering into new disputes. Yet even if the ceasefire continues to hold, the Kiir-Machar relationship will be subject to centrifugal forces pulling the two of them apart. South Sudan will also likely see more raging local violence between ethnic groups and elite-backed militias. It could even face fresh rebellions.

A. Preventing Another Collapse
Keeping the peace between Kiir and Machar is the top short-term priority for the guarantors of South Sudan’s peace deal, although it will be no easy task given their bitter rivalry. Machar is the junior partner in the unity government and wields little actual power in Juba. Kiir maintains a firm grip upon the security services, who overshadow Machar’s appointees in local and state governments and can prise defectors out of the vice president’s camp, sowing continual discord. With both men continuing to command their own separate forces, the journey back to war could be short.

Keeping the peace between Kiir and Machar is the top short-term priority for the guarantors of South Sudan’s peace deal.

Divisions within Machar’s camp could also erupt into the open even before any wider falling-out between Kiir and Machar. The latter faces significant discontent with the peace deal among his own forces, since Kiir has yet to bring any of the vice president’s fighters into the national army despite agreeing to do so by mid-2019.Parts of Machar’s fractious coalition, which encompasses not just his own Nuer loyalists but many other aggrieved groups who fought the government during the civil war, could themselves take up arms again due to lost confidence in his ability to extract benefits for them in the unity government. In such a scenario, local conflicts could break out, and then snowball. These could spark splinter conflicts or culminate in the resumption of hostilities between Kiir and Machar as they blame each other for the renewed clashes.

Keeping the unity government together requires constant and concerted diplomatic pressure from the leaders of neighbouring countries, who have repeatedly stepped in at critical moments to push the two men to reluctant compromises. These leaders need to stay active in mediating to prevent the unity government from collapsing. But since many of them are now besieged by domestic problems, they may only rally to pressure Juba when they feel that the underlying Kiir-Machar truce is under dire threat. Other actors, including South Sudanese civil society actors, the UN and the African Union, will need to redouble their own efforts as well as prod regional heads of state to remain engaged.

B. Silencing the Other Guns
Keeping Kiir and Machar together, however, is no panacea for all the bloodletting in South Sudan’s many regions. Despite the ceasefire, violent deaths continue to spike across the country, including in the president’s strongholds, as other conflicts unfold. These require concerted efforts to achieve bespoke settlements.

Firearms collected from Riek Machar’s bodyguards by the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo after an August 2015 peace deal collapsed in July 2016, forcing Machar to flee and cross the border into Congo’s Garamba Park. DR Congo, December 2016.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

The acrimonious dispute over Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state and South Sudan’s second-largest city before the war but today mostly a ghost town, is top among local conflicts that could derail the national peace process. The conflict over the city predates South Sudan’s civil war and pits factions of Kiir’s Dinka against the ethnic Shilluk, whose Agwelek militia led by the powerful and popular General Johnson Olony joined Machar’s forces in 2015.The Agwelek proved some of the strongest forces in Machar’s camp. But they operate with relative autonomy, making it clear that their primary interest lies in achieving control of Malakal. Olony’s officials and communal leaders in Olony-controlled territory threaten renewed insurgency unless his forces are able to re-enter the city.

Rebel gen. Johnson Olony at a graduation ceremony for new forces into his “Agwelek” militia, which fights for Shilluk territory rights. Aligned to opposition leader Riek Machar, Olony defected from the South Sudan govt in 2015. Upper Nile, April 2016.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

The battle for the governor’s seat in Upper Nile state severely frayed ties between Machar and Olony, straining their alliance and possibly setting the stage for renewed fighting. Under the peace deal’s terms, Machar had won the right to appoint Upper Nile’s governor, seated in Malakal. He nominated Olony in June 2020, but Kiir refused to appoint him. For months, neither side budged, holding up the formation of state governments across the country. Machar finally ended the impasse in January 2021 by bypassing Olony and nominating the latter’s former deputy. Kiir then quickly confirmed the appointment. Olony’s spokesman rejected the move, however, with his loyalists claiming betrayal by Machar. The rift between Machar and Olony could lead to violence between supporters of both men, which would require diplomatic intervention from regional countries, particularly Sudan, to cool down.Those who could side with Olony include Nuer generals who have also fallen out with Machar and who denounce his agreeing to join the unity government when so much of the peace deal was not implemented.

Other local conflicts also require attention. Disputes over the north-western city of Wau sparked a brutal conflict in Western Bahr el Ghazal, a state in South Sudan’s north west, after the first peace deal collapsed in 2016. Machar’s home Unity state has also remained stuck in internal conflict, linked to wider power politics, since the 1990s. There, scorched-earth combat and systematic looting has displaced hundreds of thousands and eviscerated their livelihoods since 2014. In Jonglei, in the country’s east, alarming and escalating intercommunal fighting erupted in 2020. Intra-Dinka fighting in Warrap and Lakes states has also reached fever pitch, with hundreds killed each year and local militias so well armed they can go toe to toe with the military. National and local officials, together with local civil society actors including religious leaders, will need to keep pushing to resolve all these conflicts, supported by the UN peacekeeping mission.

Civilians mourn the death of a young South Sudanese civilian whose body was found dumped in a pit latrine near Kajo Keji, Central Equatoria, after deadly infighting between competing rebel groups loyal to Riek Machar and Thomas Cirillo. November 2017.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

A rebellion in the southern state of Equatoria is yet another challenge. The region is home to the most active conflict and the clearest carryover from the civil war. Insurgents under the National Salvation Front banner led by Thomas Cirillo, a former SPLM general who rose to deputy army chief before defecting, operate throughout much of the central and western Equatorian countryside, demanding greater local rights and complaining of widespread abuses by government security forces they now deride as tribal militias.Cirillo signed a January 2020 ceasefire, called the Rome Declaration and separate from the Kiir-Machar deal, but heavy fighting began again in April, as large-scale government offensives met with guerrilla warfare. After talks reconvened in October, the parties recommitted to a short-term ceasefire as they deliberate over a ten-point declaration of principles to frame their discussions.

Ending the Equatoria conflict will also not be quick or easy.

Ending the Equatoria conflict will also not be quick or easy. Given that Cirillo’s chief aim is a heavily devolved federal structure, he is unlikely to accept a power-sharing post in the national government as sole prize for making peace. Nor is that blandishment likely to mollify his supporters. Mediators in Rome, belonging to Sant’ Egidio, a lay Catholic community, should draw Cirillo into the national ceasefire process, as agreed in 2020, and push for credible talks to address core Equatorian grievances.Negotiations should aim to reach an agreement on strengthened constitutional review to negotiate the state’s structure (explored further below) and a separate initiative to address longstanding Equatorian complaints, such as the abusive incursions of armed Dinka cattle herders from neighbouring states.

IV. Elections: Hurdle, Not Finish Line
Amid all the violence in South Sudan, its leaders and people must also prepare for elections, scheduled for 2022 or later. For now, there is little clarity about when the vote will take place. South Sudanese and external actors will need to manage a delicate and combustible pre-election period, taking care neither to rush the country into a vote, if elections look likely to trigger major conflict, nor to let the process stall indefinitely and thus create renewed flashpoints between the incumbent president and an embittered opposition. If election preparations do proceed, the country’s external partners will need to work to mitigate tensions as they crop up and also ensure that violence in the Equatoria region – where a rebellion against the state is now in play – is brought to peaceful resolution so elections can take place there. They may also have to facilitate a pre-election dialogue between Kiir and Machar, to avoid their relapse into conflict in the likely event that they run against each other in the elections.

Opposition forces conduct drills at an assembly grounds on the outskirts of Malakal, Upper Nile, as part of the security reform provisions of South Sudan’s peace deal. October 2019.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

A. Risks Inherent in an Election
The first election-related dilemma relates to timing. Already, the calendar is shaping up to be contentious. Some South Sudanese advocate that the polls take place either three years from May 2019, when the peace deal’s signatories were supposed to form a unity government, or three years from 2020, when the parties actually did so. Others, given the lag in filling many unity government positions, including formation of a new national legislature and state and local governments, suggest that the three-year countdown start only after the unity government is fully installed. Just getting an agreement on an election date could become a pretext for dangerous brinkmanship. For now, Kiir and Machar have yet to take a strong position as to when precisely the polls should occur, though some officials close to Kiir have voiced support for a longer timeline.

Diplomats in South Sudan will have to strike a balance between pushing for elections without jeopardising the country’s stability.

Diplomats in South Sudan will have to strike a balance between pushing for elections without jeopardising the country’s stability. Ethnic tensions are sky-high after years of bloodletting, and given how tortuous political processes tend to be in South Sudan, it is likely that the run-up to elections will be littered with disagreements that will slow down preparations and require constant unsticking. Holding elections if logistics have not been adequately prepared, or if broader tensions linked to the elections themselves are still rife, could be risky. In those scenarios, a unilateral rush to polls by Kiir that does not give his opponents time to prepare would provoke them to cry foul: they would likely label the election a sham.

The difficulty of shepherding the parties to a mutually acceptable poll is not lost on South Sudan’s external partners. Some diplomats say the unity government must hold elections earlier rather than later. They fear that failure to do so may tempt it to delay the polls indefinitely, illegitimately extend its term and deny people a chance to choose their leaders as promised in the peace accord. Conversely, others fear that if South Sudan is rushed into holding an election when politicians are still disputing the vote’s management and preparation, more violence would result. “We really need those full three years”, says a top Western diplomat. Other observers say even more time might be required. That said, indefinite delays could also provoke hostilities if the opposition perceives them as ploys allowing Kiir to cling to power.

South Sudan’s partners should not fixate on deadlines at the expense of politics. In this regard, Crisis Group’s advice mirrors that in late 2019 against pushing Kiir and Machar to form a government by a November deadline, given that Machar was not yet ready to return to Juba and renewed war loomed as a distinct possibility as a result. With a bit more time, the parties succeeded in forming a unity government in February 2020, following last-minute concessions by both Kiir and Machar. If rushing elections risks unleashing more instability, external partners should support a delay in the polls to mitigate those political tensions. African leaders, donors and South Sudan’s other bilateral partners should avoid sanctifying a possible sham election, should Kiir appear to be staging one, for instance by rushing to hold polls without adequate preparation. Such a vote would only further anger opposition actors and reignite ethnic animosity across the country.

Even if the parties can reach consensus on timing, persistent diplomacy will be essential to help the country navigate a path to elections strewn with obstacles. Should either Kiir or Machar unexpectedly step aside, or be unable to run, new contenders could jostle to replace them, possibly violently, and upend national politics while imperilling any scheduled election. Machar’s coalition could fracture further, again possibly violently, including if he feels politically checkmated and strikes a deal with Kiir to run again as his vice president, as some of his supporters fear. Then there is the south of the country, where Cirillo's rebellion rages. If elections cannot happen in southern areas due to insecurity, Equatorians may consider their voices stifled and feel more disillusioned. South Sudanese, regional leaders and other diplomatic partners of Juba should focus on bolstering political inclusion before the vote, by fulfilling the peace deal’s terms and bringing in Cirillo’s group, to further enable a secure environment for the vote to take place, including in Equatoria.

B. Averting the Loser-Loses-All Scenario
If Kiir and Machar do both contest elections, which is the most likely scenario, a post-electoral crisis could easily erupt. Both men tend to couch their political rivalry in zero-sum terms. Violence could occur out of frustration on the part of politicians and their followers who feel that the result has locked them out of state power and a share of its resources. In this scenario, aggrieved parties would perceive their rivals as having used the vote to impose a final victory in the war. Kiir’s allies, in particular, make no secret of the fact that they view the elections as a means of crushing Machar. Machar, meanwhile, sees the polls as his last chance to defeat the long-dominant Dinka elite and thus hold together his coalition, which expects nothing less from him than utter triumph.

If Kiir and Machar do both contest elections, which is the most likely scenario, a post-electoral crisis could easily erupt.

Incentives for post-election violence will be acute. South Sudan’s highly centralised power structure and political economy raise the election’s stakes, since there are limited consolation prizes, especially if Kiir continues to flout the constitution by refusing to devolve oil revenues and removing powerful governors by decree. South Sudanese elites have often used violence to negotiate their way into a greater share of power. Even in a much less polarised ethno-political environment, disputes about the 2010 elections produced several local rebellions. Political divisions are sharper and deadlier today.

If a Kiir-Machar election showdown does indeed take shape, regional leaders who serve as guarantors of the peace deal should try, by brokering pre-election dialogue, to extract assurances for losing parties so as to lower the stakes. One option would be to guarantee, in advance, another broad-based unity government. The parties could, for instance, designate slots in the future government, including vice presidential positions, that would go to losing parties according to vote share. Such pre-election guarantees are unusual and would likely require continued diplomacy from regional leaders to enforce. But they have at least one precedent in East Africa. Kiir is unlikely to welcome such guarantees, but they could be critical for preventing a return to conflict.

Other African leaders and major donors, including the U.S. and the European Union, should encourage IGAD and South Sudan’s leaders to seriously engage in forging such a settlement. Such a deal would serve to bolster, rather than dissolve, the basic political settlement that undergirds the 2018 peace deal in South Sudan, which is that peace is possible only if the major groups feel included in the country’s all-important political centre. The deal would, in some ways, preserve a troubling and unstable status quo. But the likely alternative is not transformational change, but a return to war.

V. The Long Term: Beyond Kiir and Machar
Barring unforeseen events, the elections will likely usher either Kiir, Machar or both back into power, hardly a reason for celebration given their records in office. Many South Sudanese are desperate for change, a sentiment widely shared in the outside world.Both men are unpopular even among their own constituencies. Most of Kiir’s ethnic group, the Dinka, view his presidency as disastrous – and more and more of them are willing to say so publicly, including during the recently concluded National Dialogue Kiir himself inaugurated. Many Nuer are deeply critical of Machar, whom they perceive as narrowly self-interested. This sentiment has only grown as Machar has appointed family members and inexperienced sycophants to top positions in the unity government. Both men are likely to stay in power, however, as their supporters remain united against each other and as each works to keep alternative figures from his camp from emerging.

An opposition soldier at a nearly empty “cantonment” site near Tonga, Upper Nile. October 2019.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

Even if both men, by some extraordinary turn of events, departed South Sudan’s political scene, the country would still be bitterly divided, awash in guns, lacking state institutions and infrastructure, and in need of broad consensus to avoid rampant bloodshed. Any long-term strategy for remaking the country must address the fragility at the heart of its politics. Blaming the mess on Kiir and Machar alone, or on their generation, has, understandably, become common in diplomatic circles but can underplay the destructive tendencies in South Sudan’s political system that helped drive the country to ruin. Kiir himself appears to acknowledge the controversy surrounding that system, and places himself at the centre of a tug of war between hardliners and advocates of inclusion. Speaking at the conclusion of his National Dialogue initiative in November, Kiir addressed his critics:

On the charge [that] liberators’ monopoly of power is the cause of our problems, there is another view from those who fought in the war that what is affecting this country is excessive political inclusion. … You can see what we have been doing all along is the balancing act between these two positions.

In reality, Kiir’s argument is misleading: conflict arises in South Sudan when entire ethnic groups or regions feel excluded from power and oppressed by those who wield it. Moreover, Kiir’s attempts at “inclusion” – ad hoc buyouts of elites rather than deeper reforms – fall short. Indeed, the system itself in South Sudan acts as a disincentive for elites to build inclusive coalitions. Ideally South Sudanese would rework the system, looking for whatever safeguards can be found to lessen the risk of exclusionary politics that is likely to lead to political violence. Even if the root and branch changes necessary seem a remote prospect for now, supporters of reform inside the country and their international allies should, in other words, tug unapologetically on the inclusion side of the rope whenever the opportunity arises, both to mitigate immediate conflicts and to prevent future recurrences.

A. Sharing the Centre
One way to reduce the pernicious effects of exclusionary politics is to build a system where power can be shared more equitably at the centre. South Sudan can look elsewhere for guidance, though each example it draws from comes with caveats.

One way to reduce the pernicious effects of exclusionary politics is to build a system where power can be shared more equitably at the centre.

A rotational presidency might hold some benefit. Nigeria, for example, rotates the presidency by informal convention between the country’s northern and southern regions, in an attempt to keep all invested in the political order, though the system certainly does not resolve the country’s myriad conflicts related to power, money and disputed elections or address popular anger at elites themselves. In Tanzania, elites have crafted a similar power-sharing arrangement that rotates the presidency between a Christian and a Muslim every ten years, though this arrangement has done little to prevent the country’s turn toward authoritarianism. In light of its own extreme fragility, South Sudan could adopt a similar rotational policy. It might not solve all South Sudan’s problems, but it could encourage multi-ethnic alliances or mean losers of elections feel they have a shot at the presidency next time around.

South Sudan could consider also formally slot prominent positions in the national government for electoral runners-up. This arrangement would ameliorate the winner-take-all nature of elections, thus both lessening the risks of conflict in the run-up to the vote and lowering the stakes of post-election bargaining by guaranteeing losers positions of influence with no need for them to take up arms or threaten to do so. The country’s elites could agree to designate the first vice president position, now held by Machar, for the presidential runner-up, while allocating at least one other vice presidential position to the next most successful contestant. Such a measure would be in line with the basic inclusionary logic of the 2018 peace deal. It would risk further entrenching those who have been at the centre of the country’s violent scrambles for power, but it might at least prevent more South Sudanese lives being lost.

Other measures could include creating powerful committees shared among ruling and opposition parties to oversee critical government functions, such as finance and military affairs. Such reforms would not be foolproof, since committee positions alone would not necessarily give opposition politicians influence unless their ruling-party counterparts played ball and actually followed rules. Yet such guarantees would offer some protection and go some way to reducing risks of elections in which losers deploy violence or the threat thereof to negotiate their way into power afterward.

More ambitiously, some South Sudanese advocate for a collegial presidency, with a rotating chair elected by the members. The body could comprise one or two elected representatives from each of South Sudan’s three greater regions, Bahr el Ghazal, Greater Upper Nile and Equatoria, which would ensure diversity without explicitly entrenching ethnic identity in the country’s political model. Even so, some regions would need to take care not to exclude their own minority ethnic groups from the representatives’ slots and thus fuel new waves of conflict.

South Sudanese could also entrench power sharing not just among parties, but also among regions and ethnic groups, at all levels of public life. Quotas by state or county or strong affirmative action programs could ensure diversity at all ranks in civilian and military public institutions, as grievance at real and perceived under-representation is a major driver of political discontent and unrest among certain communities.

Overall, the challenge lies less in coming up with options and more in persuading elites to adopt them. There might be ways to make changes more palatable: limiting them to a prescribed number of electoral cycles, for example, after which they either lapse or come up for renewal via popular referendum. Still, the country’s leaders for now seem likely to resist reforms; Kiir hopes to retain and Machar to capture the all-powerful presidency. Moreover, even if there are changes to rules, they will make little immediate difference if South Sudan’s leaders continue to flout the country’s constitution and laws.

B. Decentralising the State
The other channel to reducing the all-or-nothing stakes of South Sudan’s centralised power struggles is to push more authority and resources out of Juba and into regional, state and local administrations.

One only has to look at South Sudan’s recent history to see the rationale for decentralisation. The national peace agreement has done little to address the local disputes that often drove militias to take up arms in the first place. Indeed, the centralised system has spurred more conflict since communal elites and armed actors believe they need to join a national coalition to uphold their cause in Juba. Unresolved local disputes then add to the national deadlock.

South Sudan’s constitution provides for decentralisation of governance, although in practice little has occurred. Garang, the SPLM’s iconic founder, long championed a decentralised system, which he called “taking the towns to the people”, as a demand on behalf of disenfranchised regions inside then-Sudan. Upon achieving power, however, South Sudan’s leaders nearly reproduced the oppressive system they had once sought to overthrow, rather than putting into practice the visions they had proclaimed during their long struggle against Khartoum.

Debates about decentralisation are back in fashion among South Sudanese thinkers and politicians, and at the grassroots, where the idea appears to be a unifying demand. Federalism is a key tenet of the 2018 peace deal, at least on paper, and a popular idea among many South Sudanese politicians. Machar embraced it early in the civil war to attract the support of minority groups to his cause. Cirillo has published a 100-page proposal for a new heavily decentralised federal system for South Sudan. Even Kiir, who originally criticised calls for federalism as attempts to divide the country, is now competing to don the devolution mantle. The president’s National Dialogue found widespread support for decentralisation among the public and adopted federalism as a chief recommendation. South Sudan’s cabinet now includes a minister of federal affairs, appointed by Machar, though thus far Kiir has allowed little power or resources to leave Juba’s hands.

The idea is also not anathema in the region. South Sudan’s neighbours in the Horn of Africa have long tried to find the right balance between a strong state and devolution of power. Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan have wrestled with their basic state structure, either adopting various forms of decentralisation or pivoting to centralised rule. Many observers see Kenya’s federal devolution model, adopted by referendum in 2010, as a better example of how structural reform can reduce the risks of political instability and large-scale violence, especially surrounding elections. Kenya’s devolution, however, has also sparked debate about whether it will lead to neglect of minorities within the new entities.

Given its mixed record in other countries, decentralisation is not a full remedy for South Sudan’s problems.

Given its mixed record in other countries, decentralisation is not a full remedy for South Sudan’s problems. Indeed, it has been counterproductive in South Sudan before. Kiir’s wartime subdivision of South Sudan into 32 states from the original ten, for instance, increased rather than decreased central power by drastically shrinking the states in terms of geographic size, political authority and economic importance. As Crisis Group has warned elsewhere in the region, devolving power away from the centre can also push conflict and corruption to the local level, even if it lowers the temperature of national politics.Competition for local resources already drives local conflict in South Sudan and could spike if more resources were available in devolved units.

Still, if South Sudanese can agree on a system that drastically downsizes the winner-take-all nature of its political contests without accelerating the forces of state fragmentation, devolution could bring South Sudanese together by creating a clear settlement on shared governance. Devolved power would also give space for South Sudan’s massive UN mission and other donors to redouble peacebuilding efforts on the ground, which are increasingly derailed by national deadlock.

C. From Here to There: An Unclear Road Ahead
A vision for how to nudge the young country forward is critical for South Sudan’s future, even if the immediate path toward substantive reform looks blocked. A stable South Sudan is likely to be one that incorporates more permanent power sharing and greater decentralisation, no matter how convoluted or painful the journey to get there.

A UN-protected IDP camp outside Malakal, Upper Nile. Once one of the country's biggest cities, years of fighting and territorial disputes made it a ghost town. A few days later, much of the camp was razed after a government-backed attack. February 2016.CRISISGROUP/Alan Boswell

Few expect the country’s current leadership to be the ones who begin righting the ship. Proposals for reforming the country’s system of governance are plentiful, but they are overshadowed by the country’s immediate problems and the chronic power struggles between its top political actors. The 2018 peace pact, while securing a valuable ceasefire, still plays out as a zero-sum tactical competition among opposing camps and is unlikely to produce the broad-based consensus that South Sudan requires. Rising calls for what South Sudan really needs – an all-inclusive process clearly designed to address the fatal flaws in its winner-take-all system – look untethered from this grim reality.

The challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar. Many South Sudanese believe that inclusive talks are possible only if both men step aside. This scenario is unlikely to soon transpire, to say the least. But even if it did, through a convergence of pressure on both men from South Sudan’s political class, foreign powers and Christian leaders, it would be unlikely to change as much as many hope. Both Kiir’s coalition and Machar’s would likely survive the leaders’ departure from the political scene. Kiir’s pan-Dinka base predates his own time in power, while a mostly united Nuer front drawing on Equatorian and other ethnic minorities for support would likely always form the most viable opposition to a Dinka-supported presidency. Similar power struggles may thus extend past either man’s tenure, especially in the absence of laws or norms that prescribe a rotation of power at the top.

The challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar. Many South Sudanese believe that inclusive talks are possible only if both men step aside.

Pressing the reset button any time soon appears a tall order. South Sudanese leaders could, for example, convene a national conference that draws delegates from across the political spectrum as well as from the communal and civil leadership, including women and elders, in every part of the country. Conference delegates could chart a clearer path out of South Sudan’s conflicts and zero-sum political game, agreeing on immediate steps forward and a wider dialogue that leads to more power sharing at the centre and locally as well as decentralisation. Such a conference remains a remote prospect, however, given the self-interest of South Sudan’s top elites. Nor does the limping constitutional reform process embedded in the 2018 peace deal offer much hope. Certainly, those negotiations, dominated by Kiir and Machar, should be broadened to include Cirillo’s party and others to reflect the country’s diversity. Yet, even if that happens, constitutional changes absent deeper commitment from the country’s top elite to enact them may make little immediate difference in the lives of most South Sudanese.

South Sudanese will thus need to look for opportunities to push gradually toward a more inclusive future. While continuing to pursue all available options for reform, South Sudanese and their outside partners will need to stay ready for any future window of opportunity for South Sudan to repair its broken political system. If South Sudan’s peace deal were again to collapse, external mediators should also prioritise addressing these deeper structural questions in an effort to halt the cycle of conflict. To keep hopes alive in the meantime, South Sudanese civil forces inside and outside the country could organise robust political discussions on options for power sharing and decentralisation outside the state arena. The country’s external partners should be prepared to step in to financially support or help facilitate such talks.

VI. Conclusion
South Sudan – the world’s newest country – needs a reset, if not a redo. Its 2013 descent into civil war starkly illustrated its fragility. There is little consensus on how to move the country forward amid ethnic animosity, economic collapse and institutional anaemia. The scale of the challenges contrasts maddeningly with what seems politically possible to fix. South Sudanese will need to strive for wider peace now while also pushing to recreate the country they fought to achieve. These tasks are as urgent as they are daunting. Progress in shifting South Sudan toward more inclusion and less violence will likely be halting and non-linear. Yet only a persistent search for a political settlement among all South Sudanese can salvage the dreams of 2011 from the present wreckage.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 10 February 2021