South Sudan’s conflict parties are supposed to form a unity government by 12 November. But key disputes between them remain unresolved. By Crisis group


External actors should push the adversaries to make progress on these matters before entering any power-sharing arrangement – lest war erupt once more.

South Sudan is barrelling toward a crisis as it nears a 12 November deadline to form a government. President Salva Kiir is threatening to leave opposition leader and former vice president Riek Machar, who is demanding a delay to the new government, out of a new cabinet. Even if the two leaders agree to share power, disputes over security arrangements and state boundaries would poison the new administration, potentially leading to its collapse. Either scenario risks reigniting a war that has killed, by some estimates, several hundred thousands of people and displaced one third of the population.

Regional leaders, supported by the African Union (AU), the UN and Western diplomats, should urge Kiir not to form a government without Machar. They should push the parties to agree on state boundaries, even if they leave the most contentious ones for later; on a credible security plan for the capital Juba; and on a new timeline for military reform. While mounting frustration with Kiir and Machar is justified, external actors should not press the two men to share power absent such agreements.

The September 2018 peace deal signed by Kiir and Machar is at risk, as is the accompanying ceasefire. That ceasefire has largely ended five years of war pitting Kiir against Machar and other rebels. South Sudanese enjoy more freedom of movement and better access to their fields and humanitarian aid. But the parties have failed to form a transitional unity government, a precondition for elections in 2022. Their deadline for doing so, according to the 2018 deal, was originally May. It is now 12 November, after an extension facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of East African states.

The two leaders have done virtually nothing over the past six months to resolve the two main sticking points: security arrangements and South Sudan’s state boundaries. While the ceasefire has held, it is endangered by the two leaders’ failure to reach an agreement on those issues, combined with pressure from external actors for them to form a government without doing so, and, worst of all, by Kiir’s threats that he might appoint a cabinet that excludes Machar.

 In the past, only when IGAD leaders have been directly involved have Kiir and Machar shown any inclination to compromise.

A revival of IGAD heads of state’s high-level diplomacy that helped forge the 2018 peace deal is a priority. In the past, only when IGAD leaders have been directly involved have Kiir and Machar shown any inclination to compromise. Given Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s overthrow, a new configuration for regional diplomacy could include Sudan’s new civilian leader Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, together with his Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts, and potentially with AU and UN support. Hamdok and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in particular have their hands full at home.

But all South Sudan’s neighbours would suffer the consequences – refugee influxes, economic disruption, including loss of South Sudan’s oil, and proxy conflicts straddling their borders – were the ceasefire to break down.

Regional heads of state should stress to Kiir that he form a government only with Machar on board and press both parties to reach agreements on security arrangements and state boundaries. On the former issue, they should try to thwart Kiir’s and Machar’s plans to share armed control of the capital Juba, a scenario which has twice triggered war in the past. More broadly, IGAD leaders should seek the two leaders’ consensus on a new, incremental timeline for unification of their forces into a national army. A staggered timeline would allow those forces ready to integrate into the national army to do so, while creating space for political steps to win over those reluctant to lose their autonomy.

On state boundaries, regional leaders should push for agreement on the number of states, which appears to be within reach and would allow for the local power sharing envisaged in the 2018 peace deal that could in turn prevent more conflict. They could defer agreement on the most contentious boundaries, particularly that around Malakal in the Upper Nile region.

 Many South Sudanese and external actors are infuriated by the two South Sudanese leaders’ failure to form a government.

Many South Sudanese and external actors are infuriated – and justifiably so – by the two South Sudanese leaders’ failure to form a government or make headway on army reform and delimitation over the past year. The two men’s intransigence stands in stark contrast to the desperation of war-weary South Sudanese to find a sustainable end to the conflict. But the demand that Kiir and Machar form a government, come what may, is perilous. It could jeopardise a ceasefire that has not yet turned the page on the country’s brutal civil war but has brought a let-up in the bloodshed and disruption. The better option is renewed diplomacy by IGAD heads of state, supported by the AU, aiming to block Kiir from unilaterally appointing a new cabinet and to press him and Machar to at least partly resolve their most bitter disputes before entering a unity government.

The War’s Longest Ceasefire

Though the political roadmap outlined in the September 2018 peace deal is stalled, the ceasefire between the two main warring camps has been a boon for South Sudan. It is the longest truce since civil war erupted in December 2013 amid a dispute between factions of the ruling party, one led by President Kiir and another by his former vice president, Machar, himself the leader of a loose coalition of disgruntled groups across the country. On the ground, the ceasefire has done more than simply end hostilities. Rebel generals frequent government-held towns. More importantly, security is much improved and civilians are free to move between towns, most of which are held by government troops, and rural areas held by opposition fighters. Farmers can travel to their villages to cultivate crops without being cut off from urban markets, health facilities and schools. The ceasefire has also enabled better provision of humanitarian aid. According to the UN, as of mid-September there had been 30 per cent fewer incidents targeting humanitarian workers than there were last year.

Important as they are, these gains could collapse at any time – either if Kiir or Machar themselves opt to resume fighting or if other groups in Machar’s rebel coalition do so on their own. Sustaining the ceasefire will require diplomats to manage the peace process with care, despite the fatigue to which they often confess due to the length of South Sudan’s crisis and the impasse between its chief protagonists. For better or for worse, the current peace deal is the only available format for wrestling the two main parties and associated groups into consensus. Nevertheless, regional states have shown little initiative in pursuing the high-level mediation needed to shore up the ceasefire.

The Risks, Unity Government or Not

South Sudan’s ceasefire is in danger. The first and most obvious peril is that the peace process collapses. President Kiir has publicly threatened to form a government without Riek Machar.  Doing so would de facto jettison the 2018 peace accord.  It would also likely fragment the opposition groups that signed the deal. The government is widely believed to have found people from all the opposition parties, including Machar’s, who are willing to join a new government that excludes him. If Kiir proceeds in this fashion, South Sudan could return to war, with the core of Machar’s forces resuming hostilities even if Kiir manages to peel away some of his loyalists.

The second risk is that the peace deal moves ahead, with a unity government formed on schedule by 12 November, but that the parties then immediately deadlock over the issues of army formation and state boundary delineation. If, amid such tensions, the two sides end up sharing control of the capital, as occurred in 2016, then rising political temperatures along the path to elections scheduled for 2022 could spark new fighting. This scenario also closely resembles the situation in 2013, when the power struggle inside the ruling party led to a firefight between Kiir’s and Machar’s loyalists in an integrated presidential guard unit, the first skirmish of the six-year civil war.

 South Sudanese and diplomats offer a wide range of assessments of a new unity government’s viability, from mildly rosy to bleak.

South Sudanese and diplomats offer a wide range of assessments of a new unity government’s viability, from mildly rosy to bleak. Some government officials and foreign emissaries express guarded optimism.  They primarily point out that Kiir is the stronger party and that his advantage would constrain Machar upon his return, locking him into the transitional government. Many, however, are far gloomier, given the bitter rivalry between the two men. One senior Sudanese security official who helped broker the peace deal said that Machar’s imminent return would be a “worst-case scenario” since the peace deal is failing. Should Machar return, he predicted, both sides will bring more fighters to Juba, and the government likely will not last past February. “There will be fighting inside and outside Juba”, he said.  A top lieutenant to Machar likewise said that the current state of affairs is an “encore” performance of the run-up to renewed conflict in 2016 – it is, he said, “déjà vu”.

Security Arrangements and State Boundaries

The September 2018 peace deal originally stipulated that a unity government be established in May 2019. The parties agreed to a six-month delay when they made no progress on establishing security provisions for the “pre-transitional” period or on resolving South Sudan’s internal boundaries.

Less than a month remains until the new 12 November deadline, and little has been accomplished on either of these issues that will form the basis of power in any new government. The former will determine the command structure and composition of the national army, as well as control of Juba; the latter will determine the degree of representation each party to the conflict enjoys including how much influence the armed groups that fought under Machar’s banner wield locally. Machar stated on 20 October that he could not return on 12 November, due to the lack of progress on these two issues.

 The seeds of the impasse were embedded in the peace deal itself.

The seeds of the impasse were embedded in the peace deal itself. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in Ethiopia in April 2018, he handed off the mediator’s role to Omar al-Bashir, then president of Sudan. Unable to bridge all the gaps between the parties, Sudanese mediators punted on the thorniest questions. The Sudanese expected that Kiir and Machar would need Bashir’s continued mediation, in partnership with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, to muddle through the tasks of governing. This scenario suited Sudanese interests, as it would ensure that Khartoum remained central to political deal-making in Juba. As a result, however, the peace deal, despite being signed on paper, remained an unfinished product. Talks continued along a technical track to start carrying out narrow provisions for security arrangements and state boundary delineation, and a political track to broker a way past the broader challenges of forming a unity government and reaching agreement on how to implement the technical provisions.

With Sudan engulfed in its own political crisis since December 2018, and with Bashir’s downfall in April 2019, the political track collapsed and the technical track therefore stalled. While the ceasefire holds, its shelf life is dependent on progress toward durable security arrangements and the drawing of state boundaries..

Security Arrangements

The main technical obstacle to forming a unity government is the peace accord’s precondition that the parties first assemble, train and deploy a unified national army. This task will not be complete by the 12 November deadline, since the two sides have made almost no progress on it in the past year. Senior military officials from both sides give varying estimates of how many more months are required to complete the first phase of force unification, if the government fulfils its promise to fund the process.  The two parties are also negotiating over a prospective joint VIP protection force for Machar’s return to Juba as first vice president, an issue the 2018 peace deal did not directly address.

 The parties keep shifting the goalposts for the unification of armed forces.