After nearly four years of famine, displacement, and economic disintegration, the civil war in South Sudan remains one of the world’s most vexing geopolitical quandaries. Sparked by a 2013 political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar, the crisis has since taken on the explosive overtones of ethnic tribalism to morph into a contest between Dinka-dominated government forces and a range of increasingly fragmented ethnic militias. To date, over 60,000 lives have been claimed by the war while four million have been displaced by fighting and famine. Meanwhile, half of those displaced have spilled over South Sudan’s borders into neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, threatening further regional strife. In the wake of the failed 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), and in the face of deepening refugee and food security crises, it’s clear that future peacemaking efforts must draw upon the influence of regional and international actors while incorporating incentives for all sides of the conflict to come to the table in search of nonviolent solutions.

According to Payton Knopf of the United States Institute of Peace, there are currently five civil wars unfolding within South Sudan’s broader conflict: (1) a war of resistance against President Kiir’s regime in Juba by the population of the surrounding Greater Equatoria region; (2) a land contest between the Dinka and the Shilluk in the Upper Nile; (3) an intra-Nuer war in Unity State; (4) a drive to establish Dinka primacy in Greater Bahr el Ghazal; and (5) diversionary “crises of convenience” in Lakes and Jonglei that have been exploited by Kiir and his allies. Such varied and widespread conflict, which includes the destruction or takeover of key infrastructure elements, has sent South Sudan into an economic spiral, with hyperinflation, a weak exchange rate, and soaring food prices dimming an already bleak humanitarian picture. Stripped of more conventional means of livelihood, many South Sudanese have turned to petty theft or gang activity to survive. Yet despite a surge in crime, law enforcement salaries have all but ground to a halt, setting off a vicious cycle. Without strong financial incentives for officers to enforce the rule of law – and often without the necessary equipment or fuel needed to do so – a vital civic institution has been compromised, promising a further cascade of criminal activity and fewer means of combating it.

A similarly vicious cycle has emerged in the realm of humanitarian aid. As the most vulnerable areas of the country have been thrown into varying states of lawlessness, humanitarian organizations have begun to reconsider operations in parts of South Sudan. This has been especially true following incidents of violence against aid workers, the most notable of which involved the death of three World Food Programme porters in April 2017. Without the aid and protection provided by such groups, those in the most devastated parts of the country have suffered increasing human rights abuses.

The delivery of consistent and comprehensive aid has also been complicated by the splintering of opposition forces. The World Food Programme’s convoys to the city of Yambio, which once lasted two days but now require 13 separate permissions from armed groups along the route from North Sudan, provide a window into such difficulties.

Meanwhile, a host of competing or inconsistent interests outside of South Sudan have only prolonged the conflict. Some, such as Ugandan president Yoweri Musevni, have sought to profit from the fighting by supplying troops, arms, and other forms of aid to government forces in Juba. Others, including most east African leaders, have called for a recommitment to 2015’s ARCSS peace accord, urging all warring parties to come to the table. Yet many Western donors have frozen their support for the peace process, and a December 2017 ceasefire sponsored by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development has been repeatedly violated. For the foreseeable future, while facing little external consensus or pressure, President Kiir’s forces can be expected to continue making significant strides on the battlefield, leaving little incentive to seek peace.


The way forward

While many paths to peace have been suggested, experts caution against some of the most popular strategies. One common appeal involves the holding of general elections this year, a provision contained in 2015’s ARCSS. Such an election would likely end in failure, considering that key metrics of the ARCSS that would ensure the proper institutional foundations required to conduct democratic elections have not been met. Moreover, an election held in South Sudan’s current political climate would almost certainly emerge as a fresh channel of conflict, widening the chasm between the country’s warring factions. A second option calls for the establishment of a “hybrid court,” another ARCSS proviso, in order to investigate and prosecute those involved in the war’s human rights violations. Yet considering that those guilty of war crimes stand to benefit more from victory, entrenchment, or hiding rather than from a cease-fire, the pursuit of justice at this stage of the conflict is seen by most observers as a counterproductive one.

Beyond those already mentioned, a variety of factors currently stand in the way of a successful domestic peacemaking process, or National Dialogue. Most significantly, insufficient trust between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – headed by President Kiir – and the Machar-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) has kept the conflict’s two primary combatants from entering peace talks despite repeated invitations to the latter. Meanwhile, President Kiir has removed himself as patron of the National Dialogue process, allowing “the South Sudanese people to take the lead.” Yet with so many displaced and starving, and with the country’s vast restrictions to freedom of the press, such a shift is more likely to be a step backward than forward.

With these caveats in mind, experts have urged regional and international actors to pursue a number of concurrent strategies. First, mediators must harness South Sudan’s rich heritage of peacebuilding in the organization of talks and other peace initiatives. Central to this tradition is the establishment of trust between interlocutors, an element which could be incorporated by inviting a broad cross-section of South Sudanese society into the dialogue process. In view of current divisions, it is vital that this cross-section – including tribal elders, local bishops, respected religious groups, and all shades of political opposition – be represented in future talks. The inclusion of women may also be pivotal, a theory supported by an International Peace Institute analysis suggesting that when women are included in peace processes, there is a 20 percent increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years and a 35 percent increase in the probability of one lasting at least 15 years. Such findings are supported by the South Sudanese people’s own history: at the successful Wunlit Dinka-Nuer Peace Conference of 1999, a third of the delegates were women.

Mobilizing young people to join the peacemaking process may also prove worthwhile. One asset furnished by young people, as Catholic bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio notes, is a shift in perspective. “Unlike you, we [elders] are entrenched in our old habits, prejudices, hate, injustices, and even pettiness,” Bishop Kussala wrote in a recent statement. “It is not easy to let go of our selfishness, for it is how we have been able to survive and preserve ourselves in these dark times.” Beyond lending this healthier perspective, the bishop’s September 2017 statement called on the young to initiate grassroots peace efforts through social media and other forms of communication, a niche that “your bright creative minds are so agile at” exploiting.

As a third pillar of the peace process, experts have called for the proper application of regional and international pressure on the conflict’s primary drivers. Most urgently, the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council must continue striving for a comprehensive arms embargo in South Sudan, the successful imposition of which would outlaw the material support of regional governments and build momentum for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Absent immediate multilateral solutions, however, the United States can draw on several forms of financial and diplomatic leverage in order to hamper the Kiir regime. On the question of weapons flows, the United States is in a unique position to alter the shape of South Sudan’s conflict given that Uganda, a main transit point of arms and ammunition to Kiir’s forces, is also the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously, the United States could threaten to withdraw this support if Uganda continues its attempts to profit from South Sudan’s conflict. Targeting Kiir’s government more directly, the United States could draw on its influence among global financial bodies (such as the IMF and the World Bank) to block South Sudan’s access to channels of international aid. On a more individual level, the U.S. could impose targeted sanctions, asset freezes, or anti-money laundering provisions on top South Sudanese officials who have profited from the conflict.

Finally, the United States has the option of downgrading or severing its diplomatic relationship with South Sudan on the grounds of Kiir’s questionable political legitimacy. As a party to the Geneva Conventions since 2012, South Sudan remains bound to the conventions’ human rights provisions. Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that the current government has perpetrated both war crimes and crimes against humanity, offenses which have delegitimized regimes in the past. As a sitting head of state, President Kiir’s privileges and immunities are likely to absolve him of most wrongdoing over the course of South Sudan’s civil war. But if the United States were to question his government’s validity, thus jeopardizing such immunities, perhaps Kiir would be more receptive to U.S. peace proposals.

An important consideration in the peace process is the uncertain status of the South Sudanese church, perhaps the country’s only remaining institution with the means to broker a dialogue-driven solution to the conflict. In February 2017, a band of government troops ransacked a church bookstore, confiscating titles deemed to be written by government critics. Some months later, Bishop Santo Loku Pio Doggale of Juba received multiple threatening phone calls, including one in which he was told by an anonymous individual that “Your days are numbered.” The Kiir government has been known to falsely accuse the church of working for regime change, and although a Catholic himself, Kiir has called the church “pro-rebel.”


The time for action is now

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has shouldered the burden of war for over 60 percent of its short history. Every day, more of its citizens die while fewer devices for breaking the cycle of violence and vengeance remain on the table.

The time for facilitating peace – a mandate of every nation – is now, and not just for humanitarian reasons. As the country’s infrastructure and institutions crumble, instability will inevitably seep into the rest of Africa’s volatile peripheries. Such a development threatens to coincide with the political implosion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a perennially conflict-ridden region currently witnessing a face-off between its longtime dictator, Joseph Kabila, and his opponents. If presidential elections are not held by December of this year, the country could suffer its bloodiest bout of violence in decades.

Coupled with impending drama in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the current outpouring of refugees from South Sudan has the potential to spark a larger regional war, as occurred when a broader conflict involving nine African governments erupted in the aftermath of 1994’s Rwandan genocide. The international community has therefore not only a clear moral reason to invest in ending South Sudan’s war, but an urgent security interest in doing so.

A month before leaving office, US president Barack Obama lamented his administration’s insufficient response to South Sudan’s unfolding conflict. Perhaps this administration, in keeping with its commitment to countermand the policies of its predecessor, could consider treading this path to peace before it disappears.


The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect any official position of