S Sudan conflict: Can Sudan play a role?

For sustainable peace, Sudan needs to play a bigger role in the current conflict in South Sudan.

Sudan and South Sudan still have many unresolved problems, writes Elshabik [AFP]

Nearly five months after fighting broke out in South Sudan on December 15, making sense of the conflict is still problematic. The fighting, which apparently started as a political squabble between the president’s guards and soldiers loyal to the former deputy president, Riek Machar, has developed into an acute ethnic division that threatens to destroy the world’s newest state.

To date, neither side can articulate a purpose for the conflict. In a recent interview, Machar referred to the idea of democratising South Sudan. Unfortunately, this debate on democratisation may take a long time to reach a conclusion.

During the past five months, the fighting has resulted in an estimated tens of thousands of deaths, 1.4 million internally displaced persons, and thousands of refugees dispersed to neighbouring countries. About four million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. A recent UN report reported gross human rights violations. In addition to the casualties, the situation is also severely affecting the social fabric and economic backbone of the country. From the outside, the prognosis is that of a failed state: tribal friction, fractured army, devastated communities and destroyed towns.

On May 9, the South Sudanese rivals met and signed a peace deal. The deal highlights the immediate end of hostilities, the opening up of humanitarian corridors and the formation of a transitional government.

Sudan can play a positive role although this may be deterred by some factors, such as increasing internal problems, the international community’s claims about Sudan being regarded as a “party spoiler”, and ironically the very fact that Sudan doesn’t realise how much leverage it could have in the conflict.

The fragile deal is likely to fail, mainly because the international community’s approach is haphazard and the key influential actors, who maintain great leverage and understanding of the origins of the conflict, are absent.

Quick win mentality

The peaceful divorce of southern Sudan from the northern part has been internationally celebrated but with little understanding of the complexity of South Sudan with its deeply rooted ethnic and tribal enmities.

External priorities have subjugated the country’s priorities. In the years following the separation from the north, UNMISS has usually been regarded as a parallel governing body and has frequently been accused by GOSS of internal interference. Western diplomats wrote splendid reports including all the development and peace buzzwords.

USAID and other international donors embarked on bilateral agreements with international NGOs best serving the interests of their own countries. With reduced operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the insertion of development projects became easier. However, a wider reconciliation process necessary for a country emerging from a half-century of war was given minimal attention. Combining the country’s priorities with those of the international community resulted in the conflict that began on December 15.

The body language of the South Sudan leaders who signed the recent peace deal suggested little enthusiasm for genuine peace. In fact it was reported that South Sudanese President Salva Kiir stated that he and Machar were forced to sign to avoid arrest. Nevertheless, immediately after this, there were calls to meet the new prerequisites of the agreement by the international community. 

The peace agreement ending 22 years of war in greater Sudan was brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The regional mediator with the legacy of involvement in Sudan’s previous conflict reacted first after the recent outburst last December.

Nevertheless, IGAD’s ability to broker a lasting deal ending conflict in South Sudan is difficult to accomplish because of regionally entangled political and economic ramifications.

IGAD’s neutrality is already in doubt because, during one of the ceasefire talks, Taban Deng, head of the rebel delegation group questioned the deployment of Ugandan troops in South Sudan.

In the early days, Uganda came to the rescue of its ally, Kiir, but the deployment of Ugandan troops greatly threatened others in the region. This resulted in IGAD requesting that troops be withdrawn and participate in a united mission.

The involvement of Ethiopia and Kenya is linked to their associations with SPLM, and most importantly by growing political ambitions in the region. Both countries represent themselves as rising powers although the recent unrest in Kenya may provide an advantage to Addis Ababa over Nairobi.

Egypt and Rwanda have offered contributions to the proposed Peace Enforcement forces. Neither country belongs to IGAD. Egypt seeks South Sudan’s support in its forthcoming confrontation with Ethiopia regarding the River Nile Renaissance Dam. Rwanda contributes significant numbers of troops to UNMISS and seeks political advantage by advocating its reconciliation model.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has appointed his own special envoy; Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC deputy president who is a prominent and experienced negotiator. With the other envoys from the US, UK, Norway, China, African Union and the European Union, this reflects the increasing regional and international dimension of the conflict. Cautious coordination will be needed to avoid competition and the risk that South Sudan could easily become a proxy territory for different intersectional power interests.

Better coordination

The president of South Sudan highlighted this development at the launch of the independent platform for peace and reconciliation when he requested better coordination to avoid any disruption of negotiations.

Sudan arguably has the most understanding and leverage over the South Sudan conflict. Sudan’s role, so far, has been limited in terms of direct political involvement compared to neighbouring IGAD states. However, Sudan’s passivity has been positively interpreted by the international community. Due to unresolved issues between the two countries, it was expected that Sudan, internationally regarded as devoid of credibility, would take advantage of the conflict to settle border issues and further its oil interests in South Sudan.

Sudan can play a positive role although this may be deterred by some factors, such as increasing internal problems, the international community’s claims about Sudan being regarded as a “party spoiler”, and ironically, the very fact that Sudan doesn’t realise how much leverage it could have in the conflict.

Research into Sudan’s successful 1965 roundtable discussions on the south Sudan problem revealed that it took longer to agree on who would represent the south, than it took to make the agreement. Sudan can provide the expertise and history of the root causes of the problem, past efforts, failures and achievements. Sudan’s role should not be limited to those in government. Reputable figures who have worked closely with South Sudan, such as Mansour Khalid can use their leverage over South Sudanese politicians. In light of all this, Machar visiting Khartoum may, after all, not be bad news.The international community must not underestimate the influence Sudan has on both parties in the conflict. 

Sudan and South Sudan still have many unresolved problems and the present conflict presents an opportunity to embed them into a larger peace-building process that will help to restore trust between these two countries. Sudan and South Sudan’s outstanding issues, if ignored, will jeopardise the effectiveness of any individual agreement that excludes Sudan. Sudan has been part of the problem; it’s time for it to be part of the resolution.

Mohamed Elshabik is a Sudanese blogger, international aid worker and a freelance socio-political analyst.

Follow Mohamed Elshabik on twitter: @ElshabikM