Contributor's Matai M. Muon

South Sudan’s Looming Handshake: What are the expectations?

By Matai Muon


South Sudan's Looming Handshake: What are the expectations?
South Sudan leaders, Salva Kiir Mayardit and Dr. Riek Machar Teny greets during the last meeting(photo: file/supplied/nyamilepedia)

June 5th, 2018(Nyamilepedia) — For almost a decade, South Sudan’s conflict chief mediator, IGAD has struggled with the most basic issues in our nation’s brewing crisis. For example, it could not define quite well the main players, their intrinsic needs and collective interests. In the process, the conflict went on, taking different dimensions. A lot of communiqué, warnings and ‘friendly gestures’ have since been issued. None came to pass.

This month, it has taken a significant move that many across political divides welcome wholeheartedly; the decision to allow the Opposition leader, Dr. Riek Machar to actively participate in the next round of peace talks. This in effect, means his unconstitutional release from the Pretoria house arrest. This has been slated for June 30 or early. A glamorous handshake between the two arch rivals thus, is on the horizon.

IGAD, after learning a painful lesson following the complete collapse of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCISS, 2015) acknowledged that participation of the main Opposition leader was necessary. IGAD could have saved a lot of lives if this decision was taken early enough. It’s better late than never however.

So what do we expect from this?

It’s good to note that these two gentlemen have once shaken hands. They did also sign an agreement afterwards, they then broke it soon after. What have changed since then? A lot. Today, the government is more fragile than ever. With western led sanctions at its fingertips, and a dying economic power, the government is living on a borrowed life. Sustainably, it can’t survive beyond a year especially when the US withdraws its financial support and the United Nations Security Council pushes on with its arms embargo leading the action in harmony. Domestically, there are growing dissents, some are dangerous with arms to the teeth. Others are economically efficient that they can withstand the government for at least 3-4 years. This is a good news to the opposition, in particular, the SPLM/A (IO).

The opposition (IO) on the other hand is hanging on life support system. With the break away of its senior members led by the notorious bush diplomat, turned to the First Vice President (conspired), Gen. Taban Deng, the movement has faced some of its lowest ratings since its structural formation in 2014 in Pagak. It has lost more territories, and suffered major defections which have dramatically disfigured its structural shape. Diplomatically, when a party loses an acre while negotiating, its power reduces by almost a quarter. The intentional act of detaining Dr. Riek Machar both by the government and its IGAD partners was a calculus meant to compromise the IO position at the peace tables. In a nutshell, IO doesn’t have the glamour of military and economic power that it can use to remain intransigent. The rest is just a public relations!

Now with both parties facing all those dilemmas, there is enough evidence to suggest that peace is on the horizon. However, the biggest question that begs for answer is: what peace?

Experience tells us that President Kiir doesn’t like the previous peace document (ARCISS, 2015). That’s why he violated it passionately with his partner in crime, Taban Deng. With the changes in power configurations and the increasing change of tone in the region and the world at large, we might never know what Kiir thinks in his J1 Palace. For the IO, and other opposition groups, they maintain that ARCISS remains the best document ever signed to settle the conflict in discussion. For public records, all sides trashed the recent IGAD “Bridging Proposal” with some metaphorically referring to it as  a “Dividing Proposal.”

In the past few months, the call for peaceful settlement for the conflict has gathered momentum and this will likely compel the parties to sign an agreement. Painful compromises will be needed however, to bridge the widening gaps that were apparent in the last round. The IO for example calls for a 40/40 power ratio with the government while 20% goes to other organized opposition groups. History of armed conflict settlement gives us a brutal data about the winners and losers when it comes to power sharing matrixes. More often than not, government always takes the lion share no matter how weak it is so long as it remains in power, negotiating.

For example, Colombia in the western hemisphere, Uganda, Congo and the Ireland have had similar situations in the past. The winner? Government. IO needs to focus most on fundamental reforms rather than percentage terms because its ideology is pro-reform. 30/40% ratio for instance isn’t so bad to say the least.

The government with its notoriously selfish negotiators the like of Michael Makuei and Elia Lomuro will need to change their current language. The handshake hopefully will avoid these players from complicating the peace talks. Government needs to forget for example the so-called 32 states. These states are economically inefficient and politically harmful both to peace and to the people of South Sudan in the short-run

Another complex issue is the question of would-be displaced officials. Take for example, the position of the First Vice President which definitely shifts to the IO Proper. Taban Deng will then be rendered jobless. SPLM hierarchy dictates that seniority takes precedence. Also, South Sudan regional politics doesn’t allow Taban to push aside Wani Igga as the Vice President. The only possible senior position that could befit him in this scenario is the Secretary General of the SPLM. Will he accept it? If not, will Taban conspire against the peace one more time? No one knows these answers. Similar questions remain open for the like of Gen. Malong Awan, the current chairman of South Sudan United Front/Army (SSUF/A). These new players are very vital in future peace and stability. They can play an extremely negative role towards anything that doesn’t address their needs.

The looming handshake addresses one fundamental question: who will lead the transitional government? IGAD still believes that it’s Kiir and Riek who have the key to a stable, prosperous and peaceful South Sudan. This is the reason for the handshake. They will not just shake hands and disappear from the politics of the nation. Not now fellow compatriots. The Opposition Alliance on the other hand believes that the duo should go and leave the country to fresh minds (?).

Ordinary South Sudanese asks: which fresh minds? Is it the guys whose names appeared on the mega corruption scandal that listed 75 or the Generational Change leadership being championed by Cambridge educated fellow, Dr. Biar Ajak? None of the above fits the equation. The later doesn’t make any sense while the former suffers from time constrained factors.

Lastly, the question of sustainability. Will the resulting peace be sustainable? Will it address the needs, aspirations and hopes of the ordinary man? The answers are blurred. Durable peace requires commitment from the leaders. It also needs consistent follow-up by the peace guarantors. Finally, it requires collective support from the grassroots. That’s what saved CPA to say the least. Do those factors exist today? That’s your homework.

Matai Muon is a Student of International Studies at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, The University of Nairobi.

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