South Sudanâ€™s tortured history as an independent nation since 2011 is cause for near-despair. Its leaders have repeatedly gone to war against each other, displacing nearly 2 million people internally and 2.5 million beyond its borders, leaving more than 5 million in need of food aid and subjecting the population to the most horrific abuse and violence. Now, President Salva Kiir and rival leader Riek Machar have signed yet another peace agreement. It is easy to be pessimistic. But they, and outside leaders, must do everything possible to make this one stick. Their track record is miserable, but another failure will deepen the suffering.
Machar was Kiirâ€™s deputy when civil war first broke out in 2013. They came to a peace agreement in 2015 that deteriorated into new fighting the following year. Cease-fires have often dissolved within hours. Machar fled the country to South Africa after the last deal collapsed in a frenzy of violence in 2016. On July 13, the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo, a necessary step to restrain the warring sides, though it would have been better a few years earlier, and will be worth something only if enforced.
The new agreement seems flimsy. Kiir will remain in power and appears to have simply sliced and diced South Sudanâ€™s government into more tiny pieces to placate his rival. The agreement creates a transition period during which Machar will again become first vice president; the government will include 20 ministers from Kiirâ€™s party, nine from Macharâ€™s and six from other groups; parliament will be expanded from 400 seats to 550, including 338 from Kiirâ€™s group and 128 from Macharâ€™s, and the remainder from others. The document says that decision-making in the presidency should be â€śin the spirit of collegial collaborationâ€ť but that is hard to imagine after so much blood has been spilled. Analyst Alan Boswell told the the Associated Press that twice before, in 2013 and 2016, Kiir â€śviolently expelledâ€ť Machar when he was bidding for power. â€śBoth events led to large-scale atrocities,â€ť Boswell said. â€śThis peace deal sets up the exact same scenario for the third time. When it fails, it fails explosively.â€ť
Nor does it bode well that this deal was essentially negotiated behind closed doors in Khartoum, under Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, while omitting South Sudanâ€™s civil society, which has flourished despite the hardships. The United States played a key role in South Sudanâ€™s independence but is now watching from a distance. The last White House statement on the conflict, from July 22, before the new deal was signed, warned that the United States would not guarantee any agreement, nor support U.N. funding for a transitional government, â€śin the absence of a sustained, demonstrated commitment to peace, inclusivity, financial accountability and good governance.â€ť None of that has been exhibited by these two warring rivals so far.
For the sake of South Sudanâ€™s 12 million people, we hope they show such a commitment now.