South Sudan: some spoilers want peace to fail, putting 2024 elections at risk

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South Sudan is expected to hold its first general election in December 2024. It became an independent state in 2011.

The long overdue election is one of the pillars of a peace agreement signed in 2018. It helped end the 2013-2018 civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Since then, the country has progressed in relative peace, with fewer incidences of conflict reported between 2018 and 2023. However, UN experts have voiced concerns about the likelihood of elections being held within agreed timelines.

The election has been slated for December 2024, provided a number of issues listed in the peace agreement are addressed. These include the making of a permanent constitution and unifying command of the military.

But there have been major hurdles in the way of implementing the agreement. One of them is the presence of spoilers within the South Sudanese political landscape.

Spoilers, as I define them, are detractors who attempt to undermine the successful implementation of peace agreements.

I have researched South Sudan’s peace process for eight years. I have studied the evolution of the country’s conflict since 2013, and the various hurdles that warring parties face in their quest for peace.

In my view, spoilers comprise leaders and parties who view peace as a major threat to their interests and power. They willingly risk using any means, including violence, to derail peace agreements due to feelings of exclusion or betrayal.

South Sudan’s elections were initially planned for 2022, and then pushed to 2023 and now 2024. These delays have been as a result of the lack of real peace. Instead, there’s negative peace: a peace deal exists but there are simmering tensions between warring factions and those left out of negotiations.

This exclusion has led to the proliferation of spoilers. As I warn in my research, in this context, a more inclusive process needs to be prioritised to save the country’s fragile peace and get the elections on track.

What happened to negotiate peace in South Sudan

A protracted political power struggle between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and his deputy, Riek Machar, to lead the main political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, sparked a civil war in 2013.

Violence first broke out after a volatile meeting in July 2013 to decide who – between Kiir, Machar and Pagan Amum, then the secretary-general of the party – would be its flagbearer in elections scheduled for 2015. In December 2013, fighting between military forces loyal to either Kiir or Machar – who are from the country’s two largest ethnic groups – escalated.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement splintered into two factions in 2014. One is led by Kiir, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Government; the other by Machar, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition.

International and regional interventions led to a long peace process that resulted in the signing of several peace agreements. Between 2013 and 2018, six main agreements and five addenda were signed to help resolve the South Sudan conflict.

The key sticking points in these deals were around how power would be shared between the warring parties, military integration of armed forces, addressing the root causes of the conflict, and healing the nation through a truth, justice and reconciliation process.

The last peace agreement was signed in September 2018 by five key actors and a group of smaller opposition parties, signalling an end to the five-year conflict.

Elections were originally slated for December 2022. They were later postponed due to delays in implementing the peace agreement.

Who are the spoilers?

Spoilers can destroy peace agreements. There are two main types of spoilers: insiders and outsiders.

Insider spoilers participate in the peace process, sign the peace agreement and even signal support for its implementation. However, they fail to follow through. Their motives for this include the need to achieve their goals by maintaining the guise of supporting the peace process. They are especially sensitive to decisions that would weaken them militarily.

In South Sudan, insider spoilers include the two breakaway parties of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. They are the main signatories of the 2018 peace agreement. Their spoiling role has been exhibited by a lack of political goodwill in upholding the spirit and letter of the agreement on various issues. A good example of this is a recent breach when Kiir unilaterally appointed a defence minister from his own faction in total disregard of the peace agreement.

Outsider spoilers exclude themselves from the peace process because they feel their demands won’t be addressed. They openly declare their hostility to the process. They eventually use any means, including open violence, to disrupt and upset the process.

New negotiations were held in 2023 to include outsider spoilers like General Thomas Swaka of the National Salvation Front and General Paul Malong, a leader of the South Sudan United Front. These two parties are new entrants into the South Sudan political space and generally accommodate former Kiir allies. The negotiations didn’t bear fruit.

In my view, insider spoilers are more likely to disrupt the South Sudan peace process. They span both the political and military landscape and are very influential. Insider spoilers tend to have a large support base within the population.

What happens now?

New threats continue to emerge in the South Sudanese landscape, particularly as December 2024 draws closer. There have been major defections of influential generals from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition. They have expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of reforms and implementation of the current peace agreement.

This strains the delicate balance of power that has existed between the warring factions since 2018. These generals have a substantive following among the public and pose a serious risk to the South Sudan peace agenda. Failure to accommodate these generals could result in insecurity in the regions where they have influence, affecting the chances of holding peaceful elections.

South Sudan needs to reassess its commitment to peace. It can do this by including all aggrieved parties in the political peace process. This will help ensure that the country returns to normalcy under a government that’s legitimately in power after credible polls.

Written by Edgar Githua, Lecturer in International Studies, Strathmore University.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.