SOUTH Sudan’s warring rivals opened the latest round of peace talks Monday to end over 14-months of conflict with negotiators warning it was the “final opportunity” to strike a deal.
Many observers of the protracted conflict, which has by conservative estimates killed over 50,000 since it broke out in December 2013, will have heard it all before.
A raft of ceasefires—seven in all— signed between President Salva Kiir and rebel chief Riek Machar have come to naught, broken before the ink on them had barely dried.
This has meant the prospect for a final peace agreement remains a mirage, unless there is a radical change in approach to mediating the conflict.
Regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been handling the talks, the international community until now happy to defer to the African Union arm and allow the mother bloc to claim an African victory if a deal can be struck.
It may be a long time before that happens, for two reasons.
First, the conflict does not have the accompanying sense of urgency that characterised Kenya’s near-collapse seven years ago, following a disputed presidential election.
Ethiopia’s Mesfin is no Annan
Kenya was too important to world powers to be left to implode, leading to a flurry of internationally-backed activity to calm the troubled waters.
This eventually saw former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan take over the mediation effort, leading to a deal on February 28, 2008, but on the back of the deaths of over 1,300 people and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The identity of the mediator was key. The IGAD-brokered talks are led by Ethiopia’s Seyoum Mesfin, a former Ethiopian foreign minister and no doubt a distinguished negotiator in his own right. In truth however, he has nearly nowhere near the international stature of Annan.
The second reason that has pushed the talks has been the fact that none of the rival South Sudan parties take the countries pushing for a peace deal too seriously.
For one, the likes of Kenya and Uganda harbour vast business interests in South Sudan, and have thus struggled to apply the necessary heft to the talks.
Kenyan firms have in recent years made a beeline for South Sudan, raking millions of dollars in conflict, while Ugandan traders are ubiquitous in Africa’s youngest country.
Cognisant of this, negotiators in Addis Ababa for both warring sides have been content to drag out the talks, safe in the knowledge that IGAD is severely hamstrung by its own economic interests.
And when they have been backed into a corner they have been happy to sign onto a deal on paper, in the knowledge that it will be difficult for anyone to implement it on the ground.
Diplomats retain hope only in the fact that patience is wearing thin, and that the economy is in “free fall”. But South Sudan did not have strong institutions to begin with, and they had also been in decades in civil war, so this latest conflict would be booked as child’s play in their survival manuscript.
In mediation speak, the conflict has not reached what is called a “hurting stalemate”, whereby both sides cannot continue to fight any longer.
There is also the fact that there are many who benefit from the lack of order, and would not mind an extension of status quo.
Like Kenya before it, the two sides are seemingly poised for a transitional unity government to take power, with a July 9 date set. It is anybody’s guess if this will happen.
Happenings on the ground suggest not. Taking a leaf out of president Mwai Kibaki’s chicanery book during the Kenya crisis, Kiir on February 14 postponed elections and extended his tenure by two years.
This was meant to “give us a chance to negotiate without pressure”, a spokesman said, but essentially what it did was to send out a resounding message as to who was boss.
Machar was also reported to have redrawn the country’s map during a regional meeting in one of his stronghold areas.
The conflict has also mirrored that of Kenya in other ways. Negotiators in both countries squabbled over little. South Sudan’s negotiators are reported to be running up big bills drinking and living lavishly in Addis Ababa, as the body bag count back home continues to rise.
Annan, in his book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, detailed how Kenyan politicians wasted valuable time haggling over the arrangement of chairs, as deadly fighting raged in the hotbed Rift Valley province.
The South Sudan conflict also pits two of the country’s foremost communities—the Dinka and the Nuer, much like the Gikuyu and Luo rivalry that underpinned a large part of the Kenya fall-out.
The feeling, like with Kibaki before, was that Kiir was a soft touch and it was only the negotiators around them that were recalcitrant.
But Kiir’s actions have shown him to be even more militant that his predecessor John Garang, revealing a hawkish stance that few knew he had, much like the slow realisation that Kibaki was no pushover.
Ironically, Kiir is from the Dinka community, the country’s largest, but which has not traditionally been big on the concept of state and political institutions, preferring instead an acephalous nationality.
So what do you do to end such a conflict? For starters, the international community—actors with means—needs to make its hand felt.
The immediate outcome will be a lot of hurt African feelings, but it is necessary to remember that South Sudan was essentially a product of US pressure on the North.
The West is also bankrolling the current negotiations, with the “Troika” of the the US, Britain and Norway picking up the tab but just managing to keep out of sight. They need not do so anymore.
The process also needs a mediator with a heavyweight international profile. The Kenya crisis only came to a close when the main rivals were cornered and a gun put to their heads. Few African negotiators have this kind of clout.
And neighbouring nations must be prepared to temporarily bite the bullet, if to protect their interests long term. Countries like Uganda, which have found themselves sucked deep into the armed conflict, need to rethink their long-term engagement and give up immediate gains for more tangible ones in a stable South Sudan.
And most importantly, a sense of urgency must be nurtured. Some 2.5 million people are classified by the UN as being in a state of emergency or crisis—meaning they are just steps short of famine. That is urgency enough.
If not, the fact that the growing number of militia groups risk splintering out of anyone’s control and returning to the situation before the independent state should be cause for wide global alarm.