Future South Sudan Peace Talks Lies With Civil Society
Cordaid's security and justice expert for South Sudan, Rob Sijstermans, gives an analysis of the South Sudan peace talks and some background to the current conflict. He stresses the need to give South Sudanese NGOs, churches and academia a real say in the peace proces. "Otherwise the South Sudanese people remain voiceless."
On Monday January 6th Sudan's President al-Bashir arrived in South Sudan for talks with President Kiir to help the struggling peace talks. But does Bashir have the right kind of leverage to sustainably help the peace talks to become beneficial for those who are suffering the most: the South Sudanese people? Or will his efforts result in high-level agreements that do not include the views from the ground?
Cordaid calls for effective involvement of Track II diplomacy parties like civil society, churches and academia to ensure a nationwide supported peace agreement. Everything short of inclusive peace talks only stops violence momentarily and serves as a palliative.
Background to the current conflict
Fighting first erupted midway December in Juba before spreading along ethnic lines across the country. Unofficial remarks made by South Sudanese officials we spoke to stated that the current fight between the South Sudanese president Kiir and his former Vice-President Machar are based on the upcoming elections and have revolved mainly around the reconciliation dossier. Kiir is from the country’s Dinka group while Machar is a Nuer. The two tribal groups have fought each other in the past for domination, influence and resources.
In 2013 Machar was becoming more and more politically active on the dossier, trying to reconcile the different tribes in South Sudanese to enable lasting peace in the young nation. However, Kiir accused Machar of using this dossier as a political asset as he was visiting the country and rallying support for the upcoming elections. Kirr subsequently fired Machar from office and gained control of the reconciliation dossier.
Last December, when fighting erupted, Kiir accused his long-term political rival Machar of attempting to stage a coup and arrested 11 senior political figures he said were involved in the alleged plot. Machar denied the accusation but has acknowledged leading soldiers battling the government. He has accused Kiir of purging political opponents within the ruling SPLM party ahead of elections next year. According to the International Crisis Group the conflict has claimed 10.000 lives and OCHA estimates that 400.000 people have fled their homes. Horrible and bloody stories of human rights violations keep coming in on a daily basis.
Regional peace talks in Ethiopia have been overshadowed by continued clashes between Kiir’s SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) government forces and rebels, loyal to former vice president Machar who are centred around South Sudan's strategically located town of Bor.
What is international mediation and is Bashir the right mediator?
International mediation is a form of voluntary Third-Party intervention in a conflict which is focused on absence of direct use of force. It is often used in international conflicts characterized by high complexity, long duration and unequal and fractioned parties. Typically it does not however provide deep-reconciliation nor does it resolve the causes of the conflict. It is merely focused at facilitating the settlement of the dispute and in most cases can be seen as a top/down, elitist approach to a conflict.
Bashir's government reaffirmed Sudan's wish to see "a continuation of the political process aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in South Sudan" and now Bashir has come to South Sudan to mediate.
A track I diplomacy governmental mediator like Bashir is an example of a ‘power mediator’ who probably will use ‘threatening power’ and has a coercive side. The mediators’ motives play an important role and the mediation process should be seen as a political process where Bashir plays a defining role. A real danger lies within the possible self-interest of Bashir that will ignore the issues of the people on the ground.
What should be done?
Young South Sudanese diplomats and local people we spoke to say that the old conflict with Sudan was about marginalisation and the current conflict within South Sudan reignites these old feuds. The political elite should focus on supporting a national identity and ensure that people understand they are more than their tribe. Furthermore, the Government of South Sudan should ensure that the reconciliation process will receive priority during a time in which the developmental priorities of South Sudan are competing with each other.
This means that the environment of an international mediator like Bashir is intensely politicised. Bashir is an example of a power meditator who has clear interests in the region. Herein lays the danger, as Bashir’s interests are focused on securing oil production and calm in the region, even if this calm is forcefully imposed. This might not be what the South Sudanese people on the ground need as they are in need for basic necessities and a government that focuses on supporting their development.
South Sudanese Churches
The South Sudanese Churches are currently one of the only actors who receive a lot of respect amongst the people in general as well as the government. They can operate effectively and have a mandate to talk for the people. Cordaid has a strong partnership with these churches and sees them as a strong sustainable partner for now and especially for the future of South Sudan.
To conclude, Cordaid stresses the need for effective involvement of Track II diplomacy in which NGO’s, churches and academia are given a real say in the peace talks and who can speak on behalf of the South Sudanese people who otherwise risk to remain voiceless. Combining a power mediator with a pure mediator like civil society is the best way of enhancing the prospect of mediation success in a complex conflict like South Sudan.