Understanding what went wrong in South Sudan

When “do something” diplomacy forgets “don’t make it worse.” How to structure a peace accord as a ticking time bomb.

This week my paper on the conflict in the Western Equatoria region came out for Small Arms Survey. The paper had been in the works for awhile but events in South Sudan kept moving faster than the review process (and my own redrafting and ongoing research). Earlier drafts warned about the structural dangers of bringing Riek Machar and IO forces into Juba within the current political dynamics. By the time the paper came out, tragically, this point no longer needed supporting arguments.

I’ll let the paper’s narrative speak for itself. It’s primary audience is for South Sudan specialists, especially those now trying to catch up on the shattered political landscape following the peace accord’s implosion in Juba earlier this month. I’ve traveled around South Sudan’s regions much of this year; the best context for understanding Juba’s politics is far, far away from Juba.

For non-specialists, the paper offers a case study on the dangers of when “we must do something” doesn’t sufficiently consider “don’t make things worse.” We all understand that a solution is needed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance. We also understand that there is no clear shortcut to negotiating an actual deal. In Africa, this rule doesn’t appear to apply.

South Sudan’s peace mediators sought but failed to reach a viable bilateral consensus between the two parties. Desperate for a deal, the mediators resorted towards a heavily bipodal structure instead. The international/regional brokers twisted arms and offered goodies to each side until they had a document that neither side was willing to directly and publicly oppose. (Although it’s even debatable it cleared this low bar: At the signing ceremony, Kiir ominously predicted the failure of the peace process, and then submitted a list of reservations to the peace deal even as he signed it to evade threatened sanctions.) In South Sudan’s case, this bipodal power dynamic rewarded the continued manipulation of the external power brokers rather than bilateral partnership. Salva Kiir’s Christmas-timed decree for 28 new states, a political weapon too opaque and complex to trigger a cohesive multilateral response, should be cited in graduate-level textbooks.

This bipodal structure can work, but rarely, and only when the enforcing party acknowledges its own role. Alex de Waal’s analysis of Somaliland stability is an example how a credible third party can broker and enforce a lasting accord. (Of course I’m simplifying; South Sudan’s negotiations, like ‘geopolitics’ implies, was more complex than three parties. IGAD-Plus alone represented a host of competing interests. Don’t be surprised the world is not trending towards stability as geopolitical power grows more dispersed.)

The South Sudan accord is an example of what happens when a deal pretends to be what it is not and trades hard politicking for cheap shortcuts.

As structured, South Sudan’s accord required bilateral implementation in the absence of a bilateral agreement on its terms. More colloqiually: South Sudan’s accord was based on wishful thinking. It’s doubtful any external actor(s) could enforce such a bitterly opposed deal, but it was also clear no one would try: JMEC’s stance of non-interference relegated the official oversight body to little more than Worrier-in-Chief. Relevant mediation requires either both sides to accept the mediation, or enforcement.

This brings us to what went really wrong in South Sudan: If you’re going to rush into a clearly flawed and illusory deal just for the sake of a deal… don’t. But REALLY REALLY don’t rush into such a dangerous one. Attempting a peace deal so likely doomed to fail would be more understandable if the accord was not so clearly structured as a ticking time bomb designed to engulf the whole nation from the center outward.

Structuring (and then pressuring) Riek Machar to return to Juba, with IO forces, shoved two armed enemies into a room packed with civilians, hoping out of frustration that it somehow works out but knowing it probably won’t. The Small Arms Survey paper also discusses how this dynamic played out nationally through the accord’s provisions for national opposition army “cantonment sites.” The war never truly turned national until after the peace accord. That is not a coincidence.

Within this context, re-centralizing South Sudan’s political risk a la 2013 almost welcomed widened and renewed large-scale political violence––and for very little feasible gain beyond the momentary illusion of renewed statebuilding. After Riek Machar returned to Juba, South Sudan could no longer bend to an ongoing war that never stopped. South Sudan could only break— again.

The too-big-to-fail European nation-state model doesn’t appear so aspirational when you’re stuck in one that keeps failing.

What’s worse than a collapsed nation? A collapsing one.