Last August, the leaders of the two dominant factions (the “Sudan People’s Liberation Movement,” SPLM, and the “Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition,” SPLM-IO) in South Sudan’s almost two-year long civil war, President Salva Kiir and once-and-future Vice President Riek Machar, signed an accord ending that civil war and establishing a national unity government (which included, as one element, Machar’s reinstatement as First VP). That war may have killed as many as 300,000 people according to the largest estimates, and displaced more than 1.5 million (note that article was written three months before the peace deal was signed). At the time he signed the deal, Kiir loudly complained that he’d done so under duress:
South Sudan’s president has signed a peace deal aimed at ending a 20-month conflict with rebels but told regional African leaders at the ceremony that he still had “serious reservations”.
Salva Kiir, who has led South Sudan since it seceded from Sudan in 2011, last week asked for more time for consultations, drawing threats of UN sanctions if he failed to sign within a two-week deadline.
“With all those reservations that we have, we will sign this document,” he told African leaders gathered in Juba for the ceremony.
It seems almost axiomatic to say that if the leader of one side in a civil war, who also happens to be the president of the country in which the civil war is taking place, signs a peace deal that he doesn’t actually support, that peace deal is probably going to collapse. And despite Kiir’s reservations, Machar returned to Juba and rejoined the government in April and, hey, things were starting to look up. The next step was for Kiir and Machar to combine their armies into a single national military. But things have been trending downward since then, and now the peace deal is most definitely falling apart:
Heavy explosions were reported in the capital of South Sudan on Monday, as the world’s youngest nation hovered on the brink of a return to all-out civil war.
The deadly spasm of violence started with a skirmish Thursday between two longtime rival’s forces and since rapidly intensified — all amid mounting fears the groups’ leaders have lost control of their forces.
Thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the capital of Juba to seek shelter at United Nations bases — sites which have themselves also been caught in the crossfire.
“Heavy shooting is happening right outside our windows,” one aid worker at a U.N. base wrote on Twitter. “House keeps shaking with RPGs & tanks firing.”
Needless to say, the military integration plan is on indefinite hold.
It’s not entirely clear why the situation in Juba has deteriorated so badly and so quickly, or the degree to which Kiir and/or Machar are actually in control of their fighters. The SPLM-IO, Machar’s faction, is claiming that Kiir’s forces, the SPLM, attacked one of their convoys unprovoked, but the SPLM is claiming it was the SPLM-IO who attacked a government checkpoint unprovoked. But, again, the country was operating under a peace agreement that its own president didn’t really want, so it’s not exactly surprising that the situation has gone sideways. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed in Juba so far, including a couple of Chinese peacekeepers, Machar’s residence has been attacked by Kiir’s forces, and Machar’s spokesman said yesterday that the country is “back to war.” This last remark represents quite a turnaround since Friday, when Machar and Kiir issued a joint call for “calm” in the capital. Fighting has also been reported in South Sudan’s third-largest city, Wau, where several people have been killed and “tens of thousands” displaced.
The UN Security Council is likely to at least take up the idea of imposing an arms embargo and additional sanctions on both sides of the conflict, which was the threat that originally prompted Kiir to sign off on the peace deal despite his reservations. Somewhat ironically, on Saturday South Sudan celebrated five years of independence–which was supposed to bring an end to Sudan’s historic north-south tensions but never addressed the lingering inter-SPLM hostility stemming from the 1983-2005 Second Sudanese Civil War. Nearly 150 people were killed that day.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Kiir reportedly declared a “unilateral ceasefire” and called on Machar to reciprocate. Whether he does, and whether Kiir even has enough control over his own forces to make this stick, will obviously go a long way toward determining South Sudan’s immediate future.