South Sudan’s peace process faces a February deadline. Could last summer’s flooding actually help?

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir arrives for the opening session Feb. 9 of the 33rd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (AP)
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir arrives for the opening session Feb. 9 of the 33rd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (AP)

Next week, the signatories of South Sudan’s 2018 peace agreement are due to form a unity government. Since the parties have twice delayed forming this government, there has been a flurry of attention on the Feb. 22 deadline from local, regional and other governments. Unlike the previous deadlines, the parties face the additional difficulty of coping with a natural disaster.

Since July, nearly 1 million South Sudanese have been directly affected by flooding. In 2020, food experts predict 5.5 million people in South Sudan will lack sufficient food, in part as a result of the floods destroying crops.

These floods put South Sudan at risk of a large-scale humanitarian disaster — and they come at a critical juncture in the country’s peace process.

Bad news may have a surprising upside

Researchers point out that natural disasters can jump-start stalled negotiations. Here’s how: A disaster can drive both sides in a conflict to cooperate to relieve human suffering.

Some researchers concluded that natural disasters can increase political leaders’ determination to end war. One example of this is the separatist conflict in the Aceh region of Indonesia. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the region but also led leaders to revive a stalled peace process. This eventually led to a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended that conflict.

Another example is the 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal. This came nearly a decade after the 2006 CPA. Afterward, leaders agreed to fast-track the long-delayed constitution-writing process required by the CPA.

How likely is this to happen in South Sudan?

South Sudan’s leaders have been at war with one another since 2013. They attempted to end the fighting with a renewed peace agreement in September 2018 that requires the government to fund the agreement implementation and all parties to agree on the number and borders of states, as well as integrate and train a newly unified security force.

Once these steps are taken, South Sudan can form a national unity government to prepare for elections in 2022. The agreement’s initial deadline for installing the unity government was extended in November for the second time because of limited progress on the security reforms and state boundaries.

South Sudan’s leaders are under increasing pressure from the United States, international organizations and donors to complete enough of the necessary reforms so that the new government can be inaugurated after the current extension ends this month. To ensure a successful transition, the United States recently appointed a new special envoy. Amid such international pressure — and after a natural disaster that displaced millions of South Sudanese from their homes — will South Sudan’s leaders rally around a peace deal to prevent even greater suffering?

That could be overly optimistic. Here’s why.

However, there are several reasons to be skeptical of a similar outcome in South Sudan.

Since independence in 2011, South Sudan has experienced frequent flooding. The 2012 and 2013 floods affected hundreds of thousands of people. This repeated and widespread human suffering was not enough to prevent war between Salva Kiir and Reik Machar starting in 2013. The fighting spilled over into violence against civilians, which led them to flee their communities and face severe hunger. A 2015 peace deal failed, and fighting broke out again in 2016. Simultaneously, South Sudan was hit hard by a widespread drought that affected almost 5 million people.

Since 2018, South Sudan’s leaders have made little progress in the transition to a unity government. We’ve tracked the progress of the agreement since 2018 and found that less than a quarter of the peace agreement’s reforms are complete. In mid-December, the government and opposition deadlocked again on the question of how many states South Sudan should have. This is arguably the easiest issue yet to be resolved; it only requires the parties to compromise on a number. Solving issues like this would demonstrate that both sides are committed to making difficult decisions to move toward peace.

What are South Sudan’s next steps?

Implementation of the 2018 peace agreement requires funding and government capacity, in addition to political leaders’ determination. In Aceh and Nepal, restarting negotiations and fast-tracking the constitution, respectively, mostly required leaders to simply commit and follow through to overcome an existing deadlock. In South Sudan, that’s not likely to be enough.

A critical requirement of the 2018 agreement is disarming and demobilizing government and opposition forces and merging them into a unified army before forming the unity government. Throughout 2019, funding bottlenecks delayed these security reforms — the government pledged $100 million to the peace process but has released only a small portion of the promised funds.

Given the government’s limited capability, as well as weak infrastructure in South Sudan, the prospect for the two sides to work together to respond to the flooding is also unlikely. Doing so would strain the parties’ ability to implement these more demanding aspects of the agreement, even if they had shown a commitment to it.

Foreign aid may have unintended consequences

Other research suggests that foreign humanitarian aid can sometimes unintentionally undermine postwar peace by producing conflicts between different parties. For example, the 2004 tsunami also devastated Sri Lanka. The natural disaster happened during a breakdown in negotiations between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — and further exacerbated the divisions.

Unlike the scenario in Aceh, the disaster intensified tensions between the government and the LTTE. At the center of these tensions were disagreements over how international donations for the crisis would be distributed and overseen.

In addition, political scientists have found that foreign aid may inadvertently destabilize countries that are recovering from conflict. Rebels may fight to seize valuable food and medicine from aid sites. Also, aid tends to flow toward the losing side after war, which may inadvertently keep the conflict going.

South Sudan’s leaders have not rallied behind the 2018 peace agreement, despite the risk of a humanitarian disaster after recent flooding. Although disasters in Nepal and Aceh prompted a breakthrough in the negotiation or implementation of a peace agreement, South Sudan’s flooding doesn’t seem to be motivating the country’s leaders to implement the 2018 agreement. And foreign aid may unintentionally destabilize the peace. This does little to suggest further momentum or progress on South Sudan’s peace process.

Matthew Hauenstein is a postdoctoral research associate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Madhav Joshi is an associate research professor and associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

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