After about a year of on-off negotiations between the government of South Sudan and rebels led by its former vice president, Riek Machar, the two sides have yet to make any meaningful progress.
The violence first erupted in December 2013 after a power struggle between Mr. Machar and the country’s president, Salva Kiir, which soon plunged the fledgling republic into civil war. Despite signing a cease-fire agreement in January 2014, and again in May, the two sides have continued to attack each other. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and nearly two million people have been displaced. South Sudan now ranks first on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index.
Peace talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the seven-country security organization for East Africa, have stalled. Mr. Machar and Mr. Kiir have agreed in principle to establish a transitional government of national unity, but they disagree over the redistribution of executive powers and what to do with their respective troops. Negotiations have also foundered because of dissension within IGAD itself.
IGAD is expected to hold sometime this month a special summit with its members’ heads of state, and possibly other African leaders. This is a chance to break the deadlock in South Sudan: The warring factions and their backers are more strained than ever, and proposing a reasonable compromise, under the threat of economic sanctions, could compel them finally to prioritize peace.
South Sudan is a nation of some 60 tribal groups with little experience of self-governance. Since its security forces broke apart, autonomous militias have proliferated. Many rebel fighters are civilian militias from Mr. Machar’s Nuer tribe. Significant portions of the government’s forces belong to the Dinka tribe. Fighting resumed recently, and with the dry season, it could intensify again.
South Sudan’s oil-dependent economy is nearing catastrophe. The production of crude oil has dropped by about 35 percent since the conflict began. That, combined with a drop of roughly 45 percent in global oil prices since the summer, has meant a substantial reduction in the government’s oil revenues, and enormous fiscal and budgetary pressures.
Since South Sudan exports almost nothing aside from oil and imports almost everything else, trade and monetary policy have also been buffeted by falling oil revenues. Access to foreign currency has become extremely limited. The prices of many imported goods have risen. There are shortages of petrol, which must be imported because South Sudan has no refinery.
Yet if these economic strains are a source of instability, they are also an opportunity for IGAD to use economic pressure to broker a peace deal.
So far the group has been ineffectual. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia have remained mostly neutral in the conflict, but the Ugandan Army has fought alongside Mr. Kiir’s forces while Sudan allegedly supports Mr. Machar’s rebels. Uganda and Sudan are longstanding rivals and have a habit of fighting by proxy.
But these spoilers’ interests may now be shifting. The crisis is threatening to further shut down oil production in South Sudan, which would mean more losses of revenue for both South Sudan and Sudan, through which the oil is exported. The flow of imports from Uganda into South Sudan is also impaired. These economic difficulties come at an especially bad time for the presidents of Sudan and Uganda, both of whom face elections within the next two years. Now IGAD as a whole has more incentive to find a compromise between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar.
The two sides have agreed to create a new post of prime minister for Mr. Machar. But while the Kiir camp proposes making the new prime minister a nonexecutive member of the cabinet, leaving all executive powers with the president, the Machar camp has argued for turning the presidency into a ceremonial position and abolishing the post of vice president. This deadlock could be broken, however, by reallocating more powers still. Mr. Kiir could be put in charge of the army, the intelligence services and foreign policy, for example, and Mr. Machar in charge of the police and economic policy. Mr. Kiir could be empowered to make judicial appointments after consultations with Mr. Machar.
Another point of contention has been what to do with fighters. The government has offered to reintegrate into the security forces former members who defected, but not the civilian militias backing Mr. Machar. The rebels have been wanting both sides to maintain separate armies under separate commands.
Considering the fractious tribalism of South Sudan, neither option will do. A fundamental transformation of the security sector is needed; it must become a professional service that reflects the country’s diversity. All fighters who belonged to the army before Dec. 15, 2013, should be reintegrated, regardless of their persuasion. The elderly, the wounded and the illiterate should be discharged with retirement packages. Fighters who joined either side since Dec. 15, 2013, should be considered as applicants to the army, and screened partly with an eye to creating ethnic and regional balance within the corps.
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IGAD should urge the warring parties to accept these compromises under the threat of punitive action. Sanctions are often decried as ineffectual, but in this case, they stand a good chance of working. South Sudan is now dangerously dependent on Uganda and Kenya for food, on Sudan for exports of oil, and on Kenya for imports of fuel. An embargo on either oil or fuel would undermine Mr. Kiir’s and Mr. Machar’s patronage networks. Leaders in both camps have enriched themselves through corruption, and since some of this wealth is hidden in IGAD countries, it could easily be identified, frozen and confiscated.
So far, South Sudan’s warring factions have been insensitive to humanitarian appeals that they resolve the conflict. It’s time for IGAD to test how sensitive they are to economic pressure.
Peter Biar Ajak, founder of the Center for Strategic Analysis and Research in Juba, is a Ph.D. candidate at Trinity College, University of Cambridge.