Is Sustainable Peace in South Sudan a Realistic Expectation?

Is Sustainable Peace in South Sudan a Realistic Expectation?

In September 2018, the South Sudanese government and its opposition groups signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Because prior peace agreements have failed to create lasting peace in South Sudan, there is uncertainty as to whether this agreement will hold. Previous efforts to broker peace failed partly because they were contingent on the incorrect belief that internal divisions and a power struggle among South Sudanese leaders alone had caused the conflict. The agreements, therefore, proposed a power sharing deal between the warring parties to restore peace, ignoring South Sudan’s external security dilemma with Sudan and leading to the agreement’s breakdown. Sustainable peace in South Sudan cannot realistically be made when Sudan believes that peace and stability in South Sudan are a threat to its own wellbeing. The current agreement’s success depends on economic and military cooperation from Sudan, the commitment of South Sudanese leaders, and international leadership and cooperation.

To resolve the South Sudanese conflict, it is important to acknowledge the role that the history of conflict in Sudan plays today. Although South Sudan gained independence from the Sudan in 2011, it has yet to fully extricate itself. The border between the two countries is not demarcated, South Sudan’s oil passes through Sudanese territory to Port Sudan for shipping, and the two countries have yet to resolve transitional economic arrangements. Other institutional issues, such as unresolved debt and pension transitions for South Sudanese who retired while working for Sudan’s government, prevail. Outstanding territorial disputes from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) such as Abyei, the Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, fuel the acrimonious relations between the two countries. Thus, to many in South Sudan, Sudan is largely responsible for the country’s political breakdown because it initiated divisions among the South Sudanese during the civil war and continues to instigate discord and support subversive forces against South Sudan. 

Sudan’s fear of South Sudanese stability has in turn prompted it to instigate conflict within its southern neighbor, preventing it from gaining full independence. Sudanese leaders see South Sudanese peace and stability as a threat to their own control over secessionist territories in Darfur, Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. They believe that a peaceful South Sudan will magnify Sudan’s own internal failures – such as its failing economy – and stymie Sudan’s ability to propagate Islamist objectives throughout Africa. Calculating that instability in South Sudan will portray Sudan in a better light, Sudan has provided weapons to fuel ethnic conflicts and has armed rebels against the government, further increasing instability in South Sudan.  

While Sudan’s exploitative interference strategy contributes the most to South Sudan’s instability, decisions of South Sudanese leaders have aggravated the situation. For example, South Sudan decided to shutdown oil production in 2012, following Sudan’s decision to confiscate South Sudan’s oil. Sudan interpreted this as an attempt by South Sudan to destabilize it and, in return, armed  South Sudanese militias to destabilize South Sudan. This further undermined the South Sudanese government’s authority and exacerbated South Sudanese citizens’ growing economic frustration and unrest. The leaders of the ruling party in South Sudan, the SPLM, then proceeded to scapegoat each other instead of confronting these challenges together. Following an internal power struggle, South Sudan’s President dissolved the entire cabinet in July 2013, firing the Vice President and the Secretary General of the party along with other important officials.  Having lost power, the ousted officials held a press conference condemning the president for displaying dictatorial tendencies, and a week later, fighting erupted in Juba. By returning the country to war, South Sudanese leaders abdicated their responsibility to lead and to serve the South Sudanese people. By forfeiting their leadership duties, engaging in ethnic politics, and pursuing oil rents through dubious deals, officials have bankrupted the country and failed to provide a strategic direction to move it forward.

Sudan’s campaign to weaken South Sudan and the misguided decisions of South Sudanese leadership have sparked confusion and hesitation in the international community. The oil shutdown, for example, surprised many South Sudanese allies, who were not consulted despite the gravity of the decision. South Sudan further escalated its tensions with Sudan following the fighting in Panthou (Heglig), a disputed territory, in April 2012, despite warnings from the U.S. and allies not to do so. The international community condemned the decision and many countries began to question their involvement in South Sudan. While the international community doubted its presence in South Sudan, the government lost control of large part of the country as Sudan became more involved subversively.

The current Peace Agreement has the potential to succeed under three conditions. First, Sudan must realize that peace in South Sudan is in its best interest and should therefore cease all destabilizing activities in South Sudan. Given that South Sudan still shares its oil proceeds with Sudan, with peace, oil production could increase, enlarging revenue for Sudan. South Sudan could also become the biggest importer of Sudan’s consumer goods and develop an economic zone at the two countries’ border. A peaceful South Sudan could use its influence to end the rebellions in Kordofan and Blue Nile, increasing Sudan’s security.

Second, South Sudanese leaders must recommit themselves to lead and serve their people united. The current agreement created a six-person presidency to promote unity, reflecting ethnic and regional diversity and collective leadership. South Sudanese leaders should embrace this aspect of the agreement to build trust, foster confidence, and further dialogue. In an environment of heightened distrust, South Sudanese leaders should prevent actions that may create panic. For example, parties to the conflict should cease new recruitment of soldiers, as other parties may interpret this as a threat, stimulating unnecessary panic and retaliatory measures. Leaders should also use oil proceeds to develop critical infrastructure, rebuild communities, and invest in the nation’s youth through education and training, and more resources should be put other economic productive sectors to ensure long-lasting peace. For the Peace Agreement to last, South Sudanese leaders must recommit to democratic governance, nonviolent political contests, and national unity.

Finally, the international community must monitor the relationship between the two countries as much as it oversees internal reforms in South Sudan. As things stand, the international community is ambivalent to supporting the Peace Agreement, creating uncertainty among actors. Any process that returns peace to South Sudan needs robust international support that creates incentives and disincentives for key actors, including bringing those who have not yet signed the Agreement on board. International support must also focus on the reform agenda and support national dialogue to move the country beyond the transitional arrangement into a more stable political and institutional environment, eliminating rent-seeking and power-grabbing that exacerbates violent political competition. A reform agenda that creates a more credible public financial management system will decrease power struggles in the country.

Sustainable peace in South Sudan is a realistic expectation. However, the roles of Sudan and the international community in achieving this are critical. Peace will only last with sustained reform efforts, especially in the oil and public financial management sectors. The road to peace in South Sudan runs through Sudan and the international community.



Abraham A. Awolich is a Co-founder and the Acting Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, a local think tank based in Juba, South Sudan. Awolich’s research interests are in democracy and governance, public administration, international political economy, and international cooperation. Awolich also serves as a Board member of the National Revenue Authority of South Sudan and the Deputy Coordinator of the South Sudan National Dialogue Steering Committee Secretariat. 

Awolich holds a master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) from Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University where he was a McNair Fellow. He graduated in 2005 from the University of Vermont with his first degree in Anthropology and a minor in Business Administration.