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Is South Sudan Peace Process Doomed to Fail?

By Joseph de Tuombuk


Since January 2014, the IGAD has been shepherding South Sudan peace talks aimed at ending the current strive afflicting the country. The ceasefire agreements have not held up and IGAD mediators have absolutely nothing to show for all the money, time, and effort expended. 

Meanwhile, thousands of people are being hosted in UN camps in deplorable conditions and have become the fundraising tool for various NGOs. 

The reason for the glaring lack of progress is simple to understand. The IGAD process has been unusually complex because it tries to satisfy many interested parties. When you peel back the layers, at its very basic level, the IGAD process is trying to strike the right balance between preserving the powers of a popularly elected government and giving rebels powers they have not earned from the people of South Sudan. 

Put another way, the IGAD mediators are attempting to reward Riek’s hostage-taking style. The price the government is willing to pay for peace should be sufficiently high and rebels have nothing to give in return. Meanwhile, the mediators have no backbone to tell the insurgents that their demands are impossible and incongruent with how power is transferred in many democracies.

Riek Machar is seeking IGAD and its ‘partners’ to install him as the governor of South Sudan. Some of the Riek’s demands are so outlandish one would almost believe that his loose bands of insurgents were knocking on the gates of Juba. Even if Riek had 20 years to wage a war motivated purely by personal ambition, he would never achieve his goals. His best chances of ascending the presidency lie not in terrorizing population of South Sudan, or promising to give Abyei to the NCP regime in exchange for military support; he should drop the armed insurgency and build his own party. 

Riek fears that with President Salva Kiir controlling the government, the chances for a fair political competition evaporate quickly. His solution is to be an equal at the presidency and then plot the downfall of Kiir from within. This would breed a very bad outcome that would make December 15 look like child’s play.

The outcomes of IGAD peace process, in any iteration, tend to run into two irreconcilable positions. On one hand, bringing Riek into the government with powers to veto an elected president at every turn, and on the other preserving the preference of the millions of South Sudanese and let Kiir administration have a free hand at governing. There are obvious disadvantages and few payoffs from these two choices. 

Creating two centers of power could undoubtedly lead to gridlocks and power struggle. This will impose further burden on the people of South Sudan and create conditions for a spectacular implosion. Alternatively, preserving a democratically elected government is unacceptable to insurgents and therefore could lead to prolonging the conflict. In other words, Riek is holding the people of South Sudan hostage to his demand for unearned power.

Bringing an empowered Riek into the government with his private tribal militia to back him up is an insult and dangerous to South Sudanese. It rewards him for doing terrible things like he did in 1991. In 2002, the late John Garang welcomed Riek back without touching a hair on his head. 

There are still unanswered questions to this day as to why Riek was never held to account for 1991-2002 events. Maybe the late Garang thought he could use Riek to check the powers of his powerful head of the army (Kiir). Obviously, uniting Southern front was necessary price to pay in fighting the NCP regime. Whatever Garang’s motivation, this was a watershed moment because it led Riek to believe that he could pillage and murder his way to power without worrying about the consequences. It appears president Kiir has finally responded in kind. 

It is our collective hope that president Kiir does not reward Riek the second time. If IGAD and its partners want to reward Riek for the horrible things his tribal militia continue to do, the only generous concession that president Kiir can make is allowing Riek to form his party and run; sharing power is not going to resolve anything. After all, president Kiir could commence court proceeding against Riek and secure a death penalty for the atrocities he has committed. 

Out of his legendary tendency to be reconcile with those who are deep to their armpits in blood, Kiir has not had Riek sentenced to death. It is unknown if Riek is traveling around on a South Sudanese passport.

With IGAD trying to satisfy two difficult positions, the West is busy apportioning blame to both the legitimate government and insurgents. You hear comments like “failure of leadership” being thrown around. The line between insurgents committing horrible crimes and a government trying to protect its people is being blurred. For example, forces under rebel commander Peter Gadet massacred hundreds of innocent people in Bentiu – including businessmen from Darfur. 

However, when Gen. Santino Deng recaptured Bentiu to put an end to insurgents’ terror and pillaging, he was equally blamed and sanctioned. No single evidence to indicate division three forces murdered innocent people in Bentiu other than that Gen. Santino Deng recaptured Bentiu after ceasefire. This only give the insurgents the cover they need to continue doing horrible things. It is like blaming the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgents on the same scale. 

It is also unclear if the Americans have enacted a ‘silent’ arms embargo on government of South Sudan but all indications are that they are busy convincing China or any other supplier to halt any arms shipments to South Sudan army as a way of forcing the government to basically give up and allow Riek to assume the control of the government.

Riek’s actions have caused untold suffering for the people of South Sudan. According to NGOs and UN organizations, South Sudan is facing an impending famine. There is debate over how much of the alarm is fundraising-driven and how much is actually real. 

His last action resulted in what was known as ‘triangle of death’ between Waat, Ayod, and Kongor. The three towns formed a triangular area where an estimated 80,000 people died[i]. Add the Bor Massacre of November 1992, and the deaths easily surpass 100,000. Had Riek not betrayed the Movement in 1991, some people argue that an estimated 500,000 lives in South Sudan would have been saved. 

Now, we are seeing the same replay. The insurgency has driven people from farms to UN camps. With planting season over and dry season approaching, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese are at risk of starvation.

Given this history of imposing unnecessary suffering on the people of South Sudan, Riek has an opportunity to atone for his past and current actions. He could give up his desire to gain power by force and settle for a political process. This process would allow him to form his party and offer alternative vision for the country. 

The only concession that Kiir can make is allow Riek to take part in political process. That alone would be a huge concession considering what Riek has done. This is the only thing that IGAD should try to do: create a political space for Riek as the only viable chance to power. Anything short of that would immediately run into problems. 

Trying to sideline president Kiir is never going to produce a settlement to this war. IGAD’s current approach is doomed to fail because it is attempting to give Riek power he has not earned. It would also set a dangerous precedent for South Sudan. Anyone can rebel and shoot his way to power.


*The author is a South Sudanese living in the Minneapolis MN, USA. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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