Ethnic violence continues to smoulder throughout several states in South Sudan despite an official cessation of hostilities signed on the 23rd of January, 2014. What initially began as clashes between rival tribal groups within the South Sudanese presidential guards has quickly devolved into a bloody and intractable ethnic conflict throughout much of the country. The clashes began on the 15th of December, 2013, when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused a number of senior politicians, including Vice President Riek Machar, of attempting to stage a coup, a claim the vice president vehemently rejects. Mr. Machar, a seasoned veteran of guerrilla warfare, quickly established a resistance movement resulting in a bitter conflict which has already claimed over 10,000 lives and displaced over half a million South Sudanese citizens according to UN spokesman, Farhan Haq. The fighting has also assumed an ethnic dimension as the president and Mr. Machar are members of the two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer peoples, which have sided with these two factions respectively.
Although a ceasefire was officially reached on the 23rd of January 2014, with peace talks set to restart on the 7th of February, it has been ineffectual in quelling the violence, with armed clashes confirmed throughout the interim period in Unity State, Upper Nile and Jonglei State. However, this should not be surprising considering that both sides felt compelled to sign a ceasefire which provided no substantive answers to permanently resolving the conflict in order to assuage international fears. As one South Sudanese rebel official noted “This deal does not provide answers to South Sudan’s current problems. We need a comprehensive political deal…We are only signing because we, and they, are under pressure.”
The ceasefire brokered by the East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was frail at best, lacking any sort of enforcement mechanisms or effective means of ensuring compliance. Although a 14-person IGAD team was deployed to monitor the conflict prior to the recommencement of peace talks on the 7th of February, such a small team could never have successfully monitored the conflict, which is fought between various armed factions in a vast open country with few functional roads. In addition, Uganda’s military intervention in the ongoing conflict in open support of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) undermines the efforts of IGAD, of which it is a member, to mediate the crisis.
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Although the support of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) was critical in helping the South Sudanese Army retake a number of cities held by anti-government forces and facilitating a ceasefire, it presents no sustainable long-term solution for regional stability in South Sudan. Ugandan military support of the SPLA threatens further escalation of the conflict, as the South Sudanese Government, emboldened by its recent victories and the increasingly favourable balance of military power, is likely to eschew a peaceful settlement in favour of a decisive military victory. In addition, Uganda’s current position as both an overt military and political supporter of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) and a peace broker threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the IGAD mediation process. Furthermore, Uganda’s refusal to withdraw its troops violates the terms of the ceasefire signed between the GoSS and the rebel forces which specifically states that “armed groups and allied forces invited by either side” should be redeployed and/or progressively withdrawn.
The ceasefire brokered by IGAD was a stop gap measure intended to temporarily halt the ongoing bloodshed in South Sudan, and as such was doomed to fail. Firstly, both sides were compelled by international pressure to sign a ceasefire which not only failed to provide a solution to the factors which gave rise to the intense ethnic violence, but was also difficult to monitor and impossible to enforce. Although IGAD has succeeded in raising awareness of the conflict and bringing substantial international pressure to bear on both sides, this pressure has proved insufficient to make either side uphold the ceasefire. Furthermore, the continued presence of the Uganda People’s Defence Force in South Sudan is a clear violation of the terms of the ceasefire and continues to undermine the legitimacy of the IGAD mediation process. As such, I argue the only way to put an end to the ongoing ethnic violence before it reaches its bloody conclusion is through the withdrawal of Ugandan troops and sustained and concerted international pressure on both factions to accept a comprehensive political deal.