More than four million South Sudanese, a third of the country’s population, have been forced to flee their homes during the last five years. Without an effort to include their views – not just those of the country’s political elite – lasting peace will be difficult to achieve.
The signing in September of a new peace agreement between the government of President Salva Kiir, the main rebel leader Riek Machar, and other opposition forces has been called a milestone.
But while it is a welcome development, many among South Sudan’s 2.5 million refugees and 1.8 million internally displaced are deeply frustrated about the process and feel increasingly left behind.
Displaced people are among those most affected by the ongoing crisis, yet, very often, they feel the least included in the decisions that impact their lives.
Through distinct but similar research, our organizations, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), interviewed more than 200 South Sudanese civilians over the past 10 months, most of them displaced in South Sudan, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
Many of those we met blamed their leaders for prioritising rent-seeking over peace, and for digging in rather than seeking compromises.
“Our leaders are not after peace, but after positions,” said one displaced woman in Wau in northwestern South Sudan.
One of the most commonly voiced contentions was that the leadership was more focused on power-sharing and self-enrichment than on addressing the root causes of violence, like local tensions, governance failures, and corruption.
Many people, for example, said they resented the plan for five vice-presidents. As a refugee in Uganda asked: “whose power are they sharing anyway?”
‘They have interests’
While the new Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) had not yet been signed at the time of our research (between September 2017 and July 2018), respondents were highly critical of the peace process. That effort was led first by the East African regional bloc, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and then by member states Sudan and Uganda.
Many people expressed frustration with both the mediation process and the South Sudanese political leadership participating in the talks.
“Our leaders are not after peace, but after positions.”
Refugees in Ethiopia, for example, strongly accused IGAD of bias, pointing to the exclusion of Machar in the first phase of the talks. Respondents elsewhere blamed IGAD for the collapse of the original deal signed in 2015, saying it had failed to follow through on implementation and punish those hindering the process.
Regional interests were seen as trumping conflict resolution initiatives; questions were raised about Uganda’s dual role as both peace mediator and party to the conflict when it sent troops to South Sudan after the outbreak of violence in 2013.
One refugee in Uganda commented: “IGAD has issues with neutrality and confidence among actors. Some IGAD countries are involved in the war in South Sudan. They have interests.”
Those we interviewed also complained about a lack of access to information and an inability to voice their views. Many felt disconnected from the elite-driven peace process, which they said lacked significant citizen participation.
A small number of refugee representatives were invited to attend portions of the High-Level Revitalization Forum, in which the new deal was brokered, but they were limited to observer status.
Some felt represented through civil society organisations or politicians – refugees in Ethiopia, for example, expressed strong support for former – and future – vice-president Machar – but others noted the shortcomings in the legitimacy or leverage of these delegates.
Because so little information filtered down to ordinary South Sudanese, rumours dominated local discussions, people told us, filling the information vacuum with unverified, word-of-mouth accounts that further muddied the picture.
Many of the people we interviewed called for a wider dialogue but said this should ideally take place after the security situation had improved and with more inclusive conditions than the existing National Dialogue.
The National Dialogue was announced by President Kiir in December 2016 and consisted of a series of consultations in South Sudan and – to a limited extent – neighbouring countries. The process was controversial from the start, seen both as a tool of the Kiir government and a competitor to the IGAD-led peace efforts.
While some displaced South Sudanese said they might try to go home if and when a peace deal was signed, the majority were apprehensive and wanted to see more concrete signs of progress before making risky returns.
Respondents mentioned several failed peace agreements and their lack of implementation. Many said the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement – which ushered in South Sudan’s independence in 2011 – was the only accord implemented successfully.
“This time round, IGAD must learn from experience,” one IDP recommended. “They should try to put in place everything it takes to protect the agreement, and those who try to go against it must be punished.”
The current peace agreement, however, has no built-in sanction mechanisms and keeps several provisions that were problematic in the past, including the oft-criticised monitoring bodies from the 2015 deal.
The signing of the new agreement may be a milestone event, but what does it really mean for the millions of people still displaced?
The clear outcome of our research is that the only way people will feel confident about the peace process is if those in charge commit to implementing all the provisions of the new agreement, including those on security, government reform, and accountability.
Displaced citizens must be properly informed about the peace deal and more closely connected to its implementation and monitoring.
This starts with better communication – disseminating the provisions of the peace agreement to people who are vulnerable and displaced – but should ultimately lead to a new nationwide dialogue that includes all ordinary citizens in planning South Sudan’s future.
Only the feeling of being involved will end the sense of alienation and allow those most affected by the war to start imagining a more positive future, which is the surest way to engage them in the political process and in turn reduce the risk of renewed conflict.