During talks facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Addis Ababa on May 9, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed to a ceasefire to the internal conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Machar-led Sudan People’s Liberation Army – in Opposition (SPLA-IO) that commenced in mid-December 2013. Kiir and Machar met in Addis Ababa again on June 11, agreeing to complete the dialogue process regarding the formation of a transitional government within 60 days. The two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to previously signed agreements.
- The South Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called on the Kenyan government to “curtail” its involvement with the rebels led by Riek Machar, while warning that Nairobi’s perceived closeness to the rebels could create “gaps in bilateral” ties.
- At the end of May, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was extended until November 2014, with the express mandate to focus on protecting civilians and ameliorating the humanitarian conditions in the country.
- South Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. resigned, citing the government’s “unwillingness” to legitimately foster peace in the country. Subsequently, several leading members of the secretariat of President Kiir’s SPLM party have withdrawn their support of Kiir and have announced their support of rebel leader Machar’s SPLM-IO.
- On June 11, SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer announced confirmed the defection of reportedly more than one thousand soldiers from the government forces, who left their base in Gadiang, 80 km north of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State. Aguer assured that the army is still in control of the area. The soldiers allegedly defected due to delays in the payment of their salaries.
- In June there have been increased calls by political leaders in Central and Western Equatoria State for a more federal system of governance in the country, diminishing the power of the central government in favor of more control by state governments over their territory.
Assessments: Agreement to discuss transition government reached following heavy international pressure, decrease in fighting due to ceasefire
- The June 11 agreement to form a transitional government within 60 days is notable given that Kiir and Machar have appeared to either tacitly or openly support their respective armed forces’ ongoing military activities throughout the northeastern states of the country. These continued military maneuvers indicate that neither leader has abandoned the idea of using force to attempt to shift the power balance on the ground so as to exert pressure on his rival.
- The June 11 agreement was reached under heavy economic pressure from the regional IGAD states as well as the international community. Moreover, we assess that both leaders likely realized that after six months of attrition warfare, neither side has been able to conclusively defeat the other. Thus the international community’s pressure for political solution to the internal conflict may correspond to both leaders’ need to adopt new means to break the standstill on the ground.
- The ceasefire signed in May has ushered in the least volatile period, witnessing the lowest number of military clashes since the conflict began in December. However, the ceasefire violations that have occurred are indicative of several factors that should be considered when assessing the likelihood of the ceasefire being able to hold in the coming days and weeks.
- The vast majority of clashes that have taken place during this May-June ceasefire have been instigated by rebel forces attacking government positions in Unity and Upper Nile States. This fact highlights reports, supported by Machar’s own statements, that some rebel factions are increasingly difficult to control given the inherent disparate nature of the forces and their lack of loyalty to one, clear leader. Rebel factions, which are organized based on sub-tribal affiliations, are likely to continue acting primarily based on their own individual interests, and thus it is likely to be a challenge to uphold a ceasefire to which all rebel entities will adhere.
- That said, there is a possibility that some of the low-level clashes that have occurred over the last month have been deliberately directed by Machar and coordinated with rebels so as to test government forces and determine weaknesses, which can be exploited should all-out fighting commence again. The possibility of the rebel leadership ordering their forces to engage in further offensives will increase over the coming weeks and months should the government appear to be unwilling to make concessions to their demands, in addition to creating a broad transition government during ongoing negotiations.
Assessments: Uncompromising stance of government towards rebel demands, diametrically opposed interests indicate significant challenges to further negotiations
- The fact that the government has already definitively rejected certain key rebel demands indicates already apparent obstacles to the upcoming talks to discuss a transitional government. We assess that these talks will also focus on the holding of elections slated for 2015, which President Kiir’s administration has already stated is unlikely, citing the need to allow more time for reconciliation between the warring parties. Another issue that is likely to be discussed by the sides is the presence and composition of security forces on the ground.
- While the government has already called for regional security forces to be deployed on the ground, we assess that it will also attempt to demand that the rebels relinquish control over certain regions to either these international forces or government troops. The government will also likely favor the military presence of certain regional allies over others, such as Uganda, which already has deployments in South Sudan.
- The rebels’ own interests are diametrically opposed to those of the government, with the rebels likely seeking to hold elections in 2015, while maintaining control over areas in the northeast and being distrustful of regional troops interference, particularly Uganda’s. Thus, we assess that the talks to form a transitional government may be bogged down in discussing other issues, which could serve as an impediment to reaching a consensus on a transition government.
- Thus, we assess that it is highly likely that the two sides will not be able to fulfill the 60-day deadline. Furthermore, the composition of the transitional government will also pose credible difficulties to the reaching of a consensus, as the rebels and government will seek to ensure that they have equal representation, while potentially trying to limit the participation of the respective leaders, Kiir and Machar, from this body.
Assessments: Government in weaker position vis-a-vis rebels heading into negotiations; credible potential for ongoing clashes in northeastern states
- The rebels remain in control of vast swathes of strategically valuable oil-producing territory in Unity and Upper Nile, while the government troops seem to face growing difficulties in holding onto positions due to mass defections over recent months, including the most recent loss of over one thousand soldiers in Gadiang. Moreover, the government has faced increased scrutiny due to the well-publicized resignations of prominent party members and the country’s deputy ambassador to the UN, amidst condemnations of Kiir’s administration and its inability to restore peace to the country.
- Furthermore, his government’s strong warning to Kenya to limit its contact with Machar, in spite of the fact that Machar’s visit was conducted to discuss current impediments to negotiations, indicates Kiir’s concern over Machar’s obtaining regional support that could strengthen him in talks in Addis Ababa. Thus, we assess that the government realizes that it is currently in a disadvantaged position heading into discussions on the country’s future governance.
- Recent actions of the Juba government reveal that this weaker position is causing Kiir to assume a defensive stance vis-a-vis the rebels. As already discussed, his rejection of opposition demands for government reforms, in addition to the refusal to discuss the formation of a federal system, indicate Kiir’s attempt to present a hardline stance to any effort by the opposition to pressure for changes to governance. As greater transparency and a more federal system would limit the power of the government, Kiir’s total rejection of these demands is indicative of his unwillingness to relinquish control. We assess that his intransigence will serve as a major impediment to any open dialogue with the rebels.
- Given the impediments to dialogue, the currently ongoing deployment of armed and combat ready forces on the ground, and the indications that various factions involved in the conflict continue to act based on personal motivations rather than adherence to central authority, we assess that there is a legitimate possibility for continued hostilities. The UN mission’s extension of its mandate until November 2014 indicates the international body’s concern about such a situation.
- At this point in time, any resumed fighting is unlikely to be sustained or carried out on multiple fronts at once, as both sides are interested in examining what can be gained through the political dialogue, in addition wanting to avoid internationally implemented economic sanctions. Yet, should dialogue remain unfruitful, there will be an increased likelihood for both government forces and rebels to begin preparing themselves for a resumption in more focused hostilities, aimed at gaining control of the country through military advances. Given the current distribution of forces on the ground, renewed fighting would likely occur in Unity, Jonglei, and Upper Nile States, which have been the site of the vast majority of clashes since the beginning of the country’s internal conflict.