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The much-anticipated first face-to-face talks between South Sudan’s President Kiir and his former vice president turned rebel leader Machar culminated in a peace accord. The talks that the IGAD Chairperson and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne personally facilitated took place in two rounds. In the first round, PM Desalegne held separate talks with Kiir and Machar. The PM presented each with a draft agreement separately to review and submit comments in a push to bridge gaps and consolidtae a final draft. The second round was the face-to-face meeting between Kiir and Machar at which they reviewed the final draft followed by a signing ceremony held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

This meeting came against the background of a number of developments on the ground. In April, the conflict reached a catastrophic point. Following the Bentui massacre of 15 & 16 April, it entered a new phase as it morphed into a full blown ethnic war.  Many in the region and outside rung alarm bells drawing attention to visible risks of the country disintegrating, imminent occurrence of a genocide and a major humanitarian catastrophe. This was reinforced by the Bor massacre that took place when a mob attacked displaced persons sheltering in a UN compound in Jonglie’s capital.

Uhuru Kenyata of Kenya expressed the conviction that the region would not allow another genocide. UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay after her visit to the country said that, the incidents of mass killings in April ‘have starkly underlined how close South Sudan is to calamity’. US Secretary of State John Kerry made a sudden visit to the region with the crisis in South Sudan as a major agenda of his visit. Speaking in Addis Ababa Ethiopia after meeting with foreign ministers of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda on 1 May 2014, he warned of a possible genocide in South Sudan. As the fighting continued even after his visit to Juba and Kiir’s promise for an end to the war, the US announced sanctions on two army leaders from both the government and the rebel side warning that unless the two sides make progress in the peace process, further sanctions would be imposed. With regional and international pressure mounting and the IGAD led peace talks bearing no significant fruit, a new initiative for a face-to-face meeting between Kiir and Machar was launched. Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegne contacted both Kiir and Machar and invited them to Addis for the first time face-to-face talks for ending the war. In the meantime, the government in Juba announced that the remaining four political detainees were pardoned and released.

Given the depth of animosity that the fighting and recent incidents of mass killings sowed, many were hopeful but not certain if the face-to-face talks between Kiir and Machar would result in a peace deal. With regional and international backing, after the two rounds of meetings that Ethiopian PM facilitated personally, hope triumphed over uncertainty to produce a breakthrough. After a day long negotiation on 9 May, the two signed a landmark peace deal at a widely covered signing ceremony.

At the very least, this talks had two major achievements. One major achievement of the face-to-face talks between Kiir and Machar is the psychological and political message it sends to the people of South Sudan, perhaps more particularly the two major communities of the Dinka and the Nuer.  Second and significantly, the most important promise of the deal is silencing of the guns.

It is widely reported that this is a ceasefire deal. As the reading of the text of the deal reveals, this is rather a general/framework agreement with two major components. The first component relating to the commitment to silence the guns is the agreement to immediately cease all hostile activities within 24 hours and recommit to the 23rd January 2014 cessation of hostilities agreement including unconditional cooperation for the full deployment of the IGAD monitoring and verification mechanism (MVM) established under the 23 January agreement. This component also provides for the freezing of movement of forces with the two sides committing to hold their forces in their current position and to refrain from provocative action.

The second major component is the agreement between Kiir and Machar for the establishment of a transitional government of national unity. This is government that will oversee government functions during a transitional period and implement reforms as negotiated through the peace process, oversee a permanent constitutional process and prepare the country to a new election.

How shall we understand this deal? The following are preliminary points answering this question.

First regarding the commitment to stop fighting immediately. This will establish the opportunity for implementing the 23 January cessation of hostilities agreement that has so far been routinely breached by both sides. It would also facilitate the full deployment of the IGAD MVM. Importantly, it would potentially mark an end to what has proved to be a self-destructive war of tragic proportions. The agreement to form a national unity government reinforces this by adding a sense of inclusivity.

It is important to note a number of missing elements in terms of the security agreement. First, no mention of the Protection and Deterrence force was made in the agreement. Given Machar’s previous opposition to this force, it is not clear if this suggests the pre existing status qua on this issue, namely, lack of agreement between the two sides on this. Second, it also becomes clear from the agreement that permanent ceasefire has as yet to be negotiated and agreed between the two sides. It would only then that the status of the armed forces of the two sides and transitional security arrangements seem to be determined.

Another element totally omitted is also the presence of external forces alleged on both sides. Most notable of these external forces is the Ugandan Defense forces. The only way that one can make sense of this major omission is that it is directly linked to the Protection and Deterrence Force (PDF) of IGAD.  Accordingly, it might have been left to be dealt with when the deployment of PDF is followed up. As it became clear after Kerry’s meeting with the foreign ministers of the countries of the region, the deployment of the PDF has full US support and is an issue that would be followed up.

In terms of the agreement on national unity government, it looks like that Kiir has tampered his previous firm opposition against the G7+4. The agreement he signed envisages that there will be inclusion of all South Sudanese stakeholders in the peace process with direct reference to the G7+4, other political parties, civil society and faith-based leaders. It is interesting to note that unlike other agreements for establishment of national unity government such as in Kenya or Zimbabwe, the specific terms and makeup of the national unity government has as yet to be negotiated and agreed by all these stakeholders. In other words, the deal signed in Addis on 9 May is an agreement to establish a national unity government and is not an agreement establishing a national unity government.

As the foregoing illustrates, the most immediately applicable dimensions of the agreement are two. These relate to the most urgent concerns arising from the conflict. The first is ending of hostilities without which the death, destruction and displacement would not cease. The second dimension concerned opening of humanitarian access. Given the large scale destruction and displacement that the war has caused and the imminent risks of famine that it occasioned, without such access humanitarian aid cannot be distributed and catastrophic level humanitarian disaster could not be prevented.

On this account as well, this deal marks a major achievement. Indeed, the deal is very rich in its provisions on humanitarian issues. It commits the parties to facilitate humanitarian access and to recommit the recent agreement on humanitarian matters. It also requires them to cooperate unconditionally with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches affected population in all areas of South Sudan. They also agreed to open humanitarian corridors.

While the deal is hailed as a breakthrough, various concerns are also expressed. One concern is whether such an elite focused deal is a return to the old times whereby disagreement and fighting is concluded with division of the spoils of power without addressing the underlying causes of and the wider issues that the war occasioned. The reading of the text of the deal shows that while powersharing is used as a peacemaking devise it is only transitional and temporary. The deal commits the parties for a more substantive and comprehensive negotiation and peace agreement.

The other concern expressed relates to whether the deal would relieve the two sides from accountability for atrocities committed in the course of the war. Coming as it did only two days after the release of the widely publicized human rights report that the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) that documented in great details the scale and brutality of the heinous violations that both sides perpetrated since the beginning of the war in December 2013, it would indeed have been a major omission if the deal entirely left out the issue of accountability. However, without expressly using the word accountability, the deal accomplished this in a rather smart form. In the words of the agreement, the two sides committed ‘to fully cooperate with the AU Commission of Inquiry and facilitate implementation of its forthcoming recommendations’.

The third and most notable of the concerns expressed regarding the deal is whether it worth the value of the paper on which it is signed. Even the host and facilitator of the Agreement Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegne made this point when he said that he announced a breakthrough in the South Sudan peace process ‘with a sense of relief and guarded optimism.’ Given the experience with the cessation of hostilities agreement of 23 January 2014, many would put their faith not in the promise that this deal represents but in the actual dead of the parties towards translating the deal into action.

What makes the concern for implementation of this deal outstanding is the fact that it leaves many issues for further negotiation. This is true with respect to permanent ceasefire, temporary security arrangement and even the establishment and composition of the transitional national unity government. Importantly, a substantive and comprehensive deal including a permanent constitutional process has as yet to be negotiated and agreed between the two parties with the participation of all the stakeholders. This shows that the work for IGAD mediators is clearly cut and they have as yet to facilitate deals in all these substantive areas.

Understandably the issue of implementation is far more important that the signing of the deal. The signing of the deal by itself alone does not deliver any expectations that South Sudanese may have for end to the conflict and the resultant threat of death, destruction and displacement, access to humanitarian support, and permanent settlement of the conflict.

It is for this reason that I join others in telling Kiir and Machar as well as friends of South Sudan who supported and facilitated this deal to recall the old saying that the taste of the pudding is in the eating!

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