A three-week-old ceasefire in South Sudan is already on the verge of breakdown, with many doubting whether its signatories are committed to peace.
T he world’s youngest country has been ravaged by years of war. Now peacebuilding attempts in South Sudan appear to be on the brink of collapse, as violent skirmishes and the conflict’s chaotic and ever-shifting fault lines already threaten to topple a three-week-old truce.
The ceasefire signed in mid-December was supposed to put a stop to the fighting in what is one of the world’s most deadly ongoing conflicts.
South Sudan’s civil war has raged since 2013, claiming what is feared to be up to 300,000 lives and forcing a third of the population of 12 million from their homes.
The war was sparked by a political dispute, in which President Salva Kiir sacked then-Vice President Riek Machar, just two years after the country gained independence from Sudan. The conflict has largely been fought along ethnic lines between forces loyal to President Kiir, who is a Dinka, and Mr. Machar, a Nuer.
What began as a two-way fight has become fractured amidst rebel infighting, splinter groups and defections, making it harder to pin down a peace agreement with widespread credibility.
Last month’s ceasefire was intended to revive a 2015 peace deal which collapsed the following year after fighting broke out in the capital Juba.
History seems on course to repeat itself, however, as the ceasefire is wearing thin following a number of clashes for which government forces and rebels blame each other.
Allegations of violations were fired off just hours after the ceasefire took effect on Christmas Eve, with the Machar-led rebel group SPLM-IO accusing the government of launching an “aggressive attack” on its positions in two different parts of the country.
An armed forces spokesman denied the incidents, and accused the rebels of “serious violations” of their own. Ambushes on government convoys carrying “food and salaries” forced government soldiers to respond, he insisted.
“We have not been engaging the rebels, we have been fighting all in our defensive positions and we also have been fighting whenever we are attacked on the roads,” the army spokesman told AFP.
President Kiir, however, vowed to continue the ceasefire implementation process at a Christmas Day address at the St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba. “We must recommit ourselves to the course of peace, and extend a hand of unity and friendship across all the divides in the country,” he told worshippers.
A vicious cycle
Several more violations have taken place since, though, followed by more finger-pointing. Clashes reached the heart of the country last week, with the South Sudanese army alleging rebels were behind a raid on a military outpost in Juba, which killed several people. Mr. Machar’s group, meanwhile, have accused government forces of killing eight civilians in the southwest of the country.
The US, UK and Norway, which brokered the ceasefire together with regional bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have called on all parties involved in the conflict to stop breaking the truce. They threatened to impose sanctions on those violating the ceasefire, saying that individual field commanders and government officials would be held accountable for the infringements and impeding humanitarian assistance.
South Sudan’s conflict is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Some 1.25 million people in the country are on the brink of starvation, according to figures released in November by the UN and South Sudan’s statistics bureau. Despite years of suffering, the conflict has to some extent slipped off the radar of the international media.
Threats of sanctions appear to have had some weight in the past. President Kiir initially refused to sign the 2015 peace deal, citing “reservations”. But in the face of pressure from regional leaders and a US-drafted resolution that would have imposed targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on South Sudan, he eventually ratified it, a week after Mr. Machar did.
The international community is vital to keeping the peace agreement on track, argues Akol Miyen Kuol, a South Sudanese journalist and author living in exile. “South Sudan slid easily into war after independence because it was left alone,” he told The World Weekly.
Holding ceasefire violators to account amidst the chaos, however, is a monumental task - not least for outsiders.
For a start, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force authorised by the security council to protect civilians, is limited in its remit.
Although it has saved several thousand civilian lives, according to Adama Dieng, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, "UNMISS is neither an intervention, nor an interposition force. It can only operate with the consent of the host government."
A deadly trail of confusion
The frequent rifts and defections on both sides of the conflict and at all levels of seniority, meanwhile have left an almost impenetrable trail of confusion in their wake.
After last week’s clashes in Juba, for example, the government blamed a battalion under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel Chan Garang Lual, who defected to the rebels in November.
The battalion’s deputy spokesman told Reuters “we have no hand in what happened in Juba last night,” saying soldiers sympathetic to Colonel Garang had acted on their own. Yet the Sudan Tribune, a Paris-based news outlet, reported that the Colonel had taken responsibility for the attack.
“The government has been on the offensive and so we cannot continue to fold our hands while we are being attacked,” he told the Sudan Tribune.
Defections and power struggles have plagued the peacebuilding effort for some time.
As part of the 2015 peace deal, Riek Machar was reinstated as vice-president, but fled Juba after renewed fighting. President Kiir gave him a 48-hour ultimatum to return to his post, which he refused, unsatisfied that he would not be attacked.
The rebels sent Taban Deng Gai, who had acted as their chief negotiator, to take up the vice-presidency. But he quickly came to be seen as a traitor, adding another fault line to the conflict as forces loyal to him were locked in internecine war with Mr. Machar’s men before long.
This splintering shows no sign of abating today.
This week the government declared the army’s chief of staff, General Paul Malong Awan, a rebel, accusing him of responsibility for several attacks last week. He has been under house arrest since May last year, having been sacked following a spate of high-profile resignations from generals alleging ethnic bias and war crimes in the army.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the general accused the security services and presidential aides of making a scapegoat of him in order to maintain tensions in South Sudan, their only means of retaining power.
Yet again, the intrigue could lead to more violence.
"If these provocations continue unabated, then I would respond with appropriate and proportional force, and the blame would be on the government,” wrote Mr. Malong.
Mr. Miyen Kuol warns that “rising tensions between the army and elements loyal to General Malong” could lead to a “devastating full-scale war” with the potential to spill over into neighbouring countries.
‘Hard to build peace’
The general’s behaviour is endemic to the ruling SPLM party, says Meressa Kahsu Dessu, a researcher and training coordinator at security think-tank ISS Africa, who has worked on the UN peace mission in the country.
The government signed the deal “for the sake of playing the game”, he told TWW, and “knows from experience that the international community could take no effective measures against it”.
Disregard for the ceasefire, it seems, runs along all echelons of South Sudan’s warring factions. “With the current leadership, it’s hard to build peace in South Sudan,” Mr. Dessu concludes.