Boys with Guns: A Thought on the South Sudan Peace Deal



Hlawulani Mkhabela


Simon Gatwech Dual, Chief of General Staff for SPLM/SPLA in Opposition (IO) in Juba- UN Photo/Isaac Billy


The most effective way to be heard is still at the barrel of a gun and the South

Sudanese peace deal makes it impossible to argue otherwise. As the ousted vice-president Riek Machar returns to Juba to claim his chair as South Sudan’s deputy president, two years of civil war and a humanitarian crisis which left South Sudan at the brink of famine has simply been an arduous journey back to a volatile status quo.


The August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) establishes a permanent ceasefire and puts in place a transitional government led by the current president, Salva Kiir with Machar again at his side. The men with guns have been appeased and given trusteeship of the peace, splitting the country’s spoils with Kiir’s allies controlling the finance and defence ministry, and for the rebel faction, the prize is managing the oil ministry and a grip on South Sudan’s only independent source of income.


But the regional peace and security bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), and the continent’s peace brokers may wish to postpone the victory lap in Juba and question their singular lack of vision in imagining a peace in Africa’s newest country. Those that claim to negotiate and build peace need to ask themselves what peace really means and who it should serve. Does peace only mean silencing the guns through agreements that reward violence and cater to the interests of those that mobilise unrest? Or should it mean providing the foundations for new societies whose functioning is not undermined by the constant threat of violence.


At the slightest political disruption, South Sudan’s political leaders have quickly discarded talk and taken up arms. Despite optimism following independence, South Sudan has never enjoyed peace, nor established a solid basis for pacific politics. During the region’s civil war with Sudan, armed groups were relatively united behind the SPLA, the military wing of the ruling SPLM. However, since independence the state has seen frequent sparks of violence including clashes between the newly elected government and rebels in the restivem Jonglei State as well as cattle raiding between communities and ethnic groups.


The SPLM failed to evolve from an armed group to a party in government and remained a largely military entity taking on and shedding the guise of political party when convenient. Facing a predictable challenge from his sacked vice-president, Kiir could not compose a political response, instead choosing to suspend the party’s Secretary-General, and abandon any attempts of political engagement. War is the knee-jerk response from politicians with little regard for political processes. In a country where bullying works and might is right, it is unsurprising that though South Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries, it is a regional leader in military spending.


The temptation to do whatever is necessary to remove violent threat cannot be denied.

However, when the capacity to mobilise violence is what places you at the negotiation table and is what permits you to structure the political and economic environment; then violence remains the logical choice. If violence is a currency, the parties engaged in the current peace are motivated to incessantly remind each other of their disruptive power and find small ways to undermine the ceasefire. And those excluded from the unity government have no other rational choice but to flex their muscle and demonstrate an ability to pose a threat.


One lesson from the peace agreement seems to be that holistic peace processes are too difficult to manage and should be castoff at the slightest sign of trouble. Though initially eager to involve civil society actors in the peace process, the representation of civil society groups and their influence on the final agreement was progressively whittled away. It must be noted that mediators faced a significant challenge when trying to include civil society voices at the negotiation table.


Some so-called grassroots organisations were simply pawns representing the warring parties, and some actively threatened peace. Instead of grappling with the difficult task of ensuring constructive broad-based engagement, the regional bloc accepted token civil society inclusion. This quashed civic and social voices which could disturb the political reality and forces that had the potential to demand that former rebels consider the country’s future beyond the temporary halting of hostilities. Despite cursory mention of civil society, and vague outlines for women and youth involvement, the measures suggested by the August Agreement are largely dependent on political agents acting in good faith.


It is anticipated that the same actors placed in a similar environment will act differently in the future when their interests are threatened. The government is unable to provide services or reliably offer protection, so the people and their ability to harness local and international support are crucial to the functioning of the country. Unfortunately, the peace agreement does not reflect the diverse and competing political and social actors which are fundamental to everyday life. It presents a kind of politics as usual which offers power to sources instability and leaves the people to hope for the best.


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