A war made by peace?
As soon as the war started in December 2013, and before the SPLA-IO had even coalesced around Riek Machar’s leadership, IGAD, with international support, initiated peace negotiations in Addis Ababa. The parties and issues in contention had yet to be clarified, and the parties were still gaining momentum. They were far from a stalemate and appetite to negotiate. Yet, from the eruption of violence in Juba, there was an instant international appetite for peace. As the international community watched events unfold in December 2013, many were confronted by a cognitive dissonance about the nature of the South Sudanese political system. The ‘Troika’ governments – the UK, the USA and Norway – plus the EU and the UN had increasingly discussed imperfections in South Sudan’s governance systems. In 2012, the UK’s Department for International Development had even started to tailor assistance in South Sudan accordingly. Yet, the speed, scale and urban focus of the way the conflict erupted in 2013 shocked people and brought immediate calls for peace. In this moment of dissonance and disbelief, international diplomats were relieved that the East African regional powers, notably Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda were all eager to take a lead in brokering peace.
Control of the peace agreements by IGAD and the international community quickly meant that this new peace process mimicked those of the 2005 CPA and other peace settlements. It was assumed that the new peace agreement to deal with the post-December 2013 war would not only be a cessation of hostilities, but would include a new power-sharing government during a transition period that would end with an election. It would include elements promoting political and economic liberal systems. It would also have the same rituals that would help set up the process and make the peace-makings distinct.
There was irony in IGAD leading the peace negotiations. Uganda was a member of IGAD and was also actively fighting for the South Sudan government. In early 2014, its army played an active, visible role in securing for the government control of Juba, Bor, the oilfields and major roads, and deterring an SPLA-IO attack on the capital. The securing of these major government assets and transport routes was useful for a broader part of the international community. As the war escalated through 2014 and 2015, the negotiations seemed to be nothing more than noise. Maybe, at best, they were an attempt by foreign mediators to make a seemingly illegible, unreasonable war into a legible conflict. Many senior figures, especially in the cash-strapped SPLA-IO, were clearly using the negotiations as an opportunity to rest and recuperate on the budget of international donors.
At the same time, the peace negotiations had power to reshape the politics of the hakuma. The IGAD peace negotiations proved crucial in establishing the structure and hierarchies of the SPLA-IO. The CPA had made it clear that authority was established through peace and war. Through political settlements, international legitimacy could be bestowed on rebel groups. Therefore, by assuming leadership over the negotiations from the outset, Riek Machar also asserted himself as leader over the SPLA-IO. This was even visible in the name of the SPLA-IO. Many senior commanders in the armed opposition to government opposed the choice as they had fought the SPLA throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, to appeal to a broader South Sudanese constituency, Machar wanted to keep the SPLA-IO name. The first IGAD cessation of hostilities was signed in the name of the SPLA-IO before the armed opposition had even met and selected a name. Yet, as it was now internationally recognised and used in legal text, the SPLA-IO name stuck.
Eventually, in 2015, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS). However, as Kiir signed it he was explicit that he did not want to. There was no deal with Machar and the SPLA-IO. The following months and years after the 2015 ARCSS saw no decline in fighting between the government and SPLA-IO. In April 2016, Machar flew to Juba to join the join the ‘unity’ government.
However, the signing of the 2015 ARCSS did result in the escalation and growing geographic spread of the war. The ARCSS and government responses to it both pushed war into the Equatorias and increased fighting in Bahr el Ghazal. In 2014, when the ARCSS was being negotiated, there was just one man behind one placard in the large negotiating room which read ‘Equatorias’. The mediators focused on the SPLA-IO and government and saw the war as primarily about Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile. Fighting escalated and spread after the signing of the ARCSS. The Equatorias became a major theatre of war and a proliferation of armed groups emerged there. Their lack of involvement in the peace agreement, for many Equatorians, was indicative of their exclusion from power in the state.
Despite the ARCSS escalating the war, international diplomats were hesitant to accept its total failure in case this discouraged their governments’ engagement. The pretence of peace was lost in July 2016 when violence erupted in Juba just two months after SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar returned to the city to form a Transitional Government of National Unity. On the 2 July 2016, unknown gunmen killed two SPLA-IO soldiers, increasing the nervousness of Machar’s troops. A few days later, at the Presidential Palace, during a live news conference with both Kiir and Machar, fighting erupted outside between their bodyguards. The heavily armed bodyguards quickly killed each other in large numbers. Many of the bodyguards were close relatives of the elite, increasing their personal bitterness instantly. The peace fell apart and fighting spread across Juba 8–11 July while, government forces pursued Machar out of Juba as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.1 Small Arms Survey, ‘Spreading Fallout: The Collapse of the ARCSS and New Conflict along the Equatorias-DRC Border’, HSBA Issue Brief (2017), www.smallarmssurvey.org/sites/default/files/resources/HSBA-IB28-Spreading-Fallout.pdf, accessed 17 July 2022.
In the days when Riek Machar fled, Taban Deng declared himself leader of the SPLA-IO and Kiir quickly accepted this. Almost all the SPLA-IO refused Taban’s leadership, but this created a divided opposition and ambiguities for the international community. Fighting again escalated in Koch and areas to the east of the Bilnyang. The splitting of the SPLA-IO divided counties and families even further, as well as allowing the government to use larger, local militia for raids into government-held areas. Their local knowledge increased the brutality and penetration of these attacks.
1      Small Arms Survey, ‘Spreading Fallout: The Collapse of the ARCSS and New Conflict along the Equatorias-DRC Border’, HSBA Issue Brief (2017), www.smallarmssurvey.org/sites/default/files/resources/HSBA-IB28-Spreading-Fallout.pdf, accessed 17 July 2022. »