South Sudan's warring government and rebel forces have signed a tentative agreement to end the country's 15-month conflict — but one that stops short of establishing the transitional government that observers argue should be the real task at hand.
Word of the deal came late Sunday in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar have been involved in drawn-out, intermittent talks since the first of several failed accords was signed a year ago. That initial cessation of hostilities pact came a month after fighting broke out in South Sudan's capital, Juba, in December 2013 between forces loyal to Kiir and members of the national army who broke away under the leadership of Machar.
Seyoum Mesfin, a negotiator for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc that has overseen negotiations in South Sudan, told reporters that a "complete cessation of hostilities in South Sudan is expected as of" Monday morning. The latest ceasfire deal, however, is the conflict's eighth — each of the previous pacts were violated within days or even hours of their signing.
According to the International Crisis Group, violence has claimed upwards of 50,000 lives in South Sudan, which only achieved independence in 2011 after decades of war with Sudan. The United Nations and human rights groups have implicated both sides in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during a conflict whose divide has largely fallen along ethnic lines, between a mostly Dinka army and predominantly Nuer followers of Machar.
Despite early reports indicating that a power-sharing arrangement was part of Sunday's deal, the two camps later clarified that they had only agreed on a timetable for crafting such an arrangement.
"This was a partial agreement, not a comprehensive agreement," Joseph Malok, deputy permanent representative at South Sudan's UN Mission, told VICE News. "There are so many areas where they are still disagreeing, like when it comes to leadership structure. They have not settled yet on the power-sharing agreement."
Malok said that the pact set a date of February 20 for renewing talks and a deadline of July 9 for establishing a unity government. Reports indicate that the resulting government could well have Kiir remain as president and Machar return as his vice president, re-establishing the division of authority that originally existed between the two men before Kiir unceremoniously booted Machar from his cabinet in July 2013, setting the stage for the crisis that broke out the following December.
'This deal will mean nothing unless the UN Security Council and regional leaders make good on their promise to sanction those who violate the agreement.'
Upon independence four years ago, a UN peacekeeping mission known as UNMISS was established in the fledgling country. Billions in foreign aid and non-governmental organization dollars flowed into the country alongside the mission, which was conceived in part to assist South Sudan in its nation-building effort. But despite clear fissures in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, many in the international community and the UN were blindsided when bloodshed broke out last December.
Fighting has simmered since then, with each side alternatively winning and ceding strategic oil producing towns — and leaving civilians to fend for themselves. A lull in battles brought on by the country's wet season ended like clockwork precisely when the rains let up. Though rebels control stretches of oil pipeline, they have refrained from destroying the infrastructure of an industry that at one point provided the government with 99 percent of its revenues and, say critics, fed a kleptocratic ruling class.
In a report released last week, the International Crisis Group found that the conflict was increasingly spilling into and overlapping with fighting taking place within Sudan. The Sudanese government is suspected of providing weapons and logistical support to southern rebels, while Kiir's government is believed to be doing the same for those fighting the Sudanese government. Rebel elements have also been retreating into sanctuaries on either side of the border. Troops from IGAD member Uganda — a longtime foe of Sudan — continue to back Kiir's forces in the south, adding yet another combustible element to the war.
Machar has repeatedly blamed the schism and resulting conflict on his former comrade Kiir, as he did in an interview he gave to the BBC's Africa service last month.
"The president of the republic decided to destroy his own country," said Machar. "Many people lost lives, many people lost their kins, and it is regrettable and one feels sorry."
Asked if he was a party to the conflict, Machar conceded, "It takes two to tango."
On Saturday, IGAD released a report summarizing breaches of last January's cessation of hostilities agreement. Both sides, it said, were responsible for violations.
Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan analyst at the Enough Project, an organization that seeks to end genocide and crimes against humanity, told VICE News that the tentative truce is little consolation for the 1.5 million who have been displaced by fighting. She pointed out that despite the talk of ending impunity, IGAD's own report from the day prior "was not even mentioned once in the context of the negotiations."
Observers have called on the UN and regional leaders to make good on threats to increase sanctions on leaders who have been implicated in atrocities. After Sunday's deal was reached, IGAD members promised to punish violators of the latest accord and report them to the Security Council and African Union.
"This deal will mean nothing unless the UN Security Council and regional leaders make good on their promise to sanction those who violate the agreement," Kumar said.
The detente comes as more South Sudanese than ever are seeking refuge at UN bases within the country. As of January 30, UNMISS estimates that their compounds are now sheltering nearly 113,000 civilians. A report published in October by the charity Oxfam estimated that some 2.2 million of the country's people were facing starvation.
Last week, the South Sudan Democratic Army Cobra Faction — a rebel group led by a figure named David Yau Yau that has made peace with the government — handed over 280 children that it had conscripted to fight in the conflict. Yau Yau's militants mostly belong to the Murle ethnic group, and had fought running battles with the government since well before December 2013. Yau Yau's forces agreed last year to lay down arms in exchange for his appointment as administrator of the now semi-autonomous Pibor area.
The kids are among some 3,000 set to be disarmed and reintegrated under a UN-brokered agreement. The UN estimates that armed groups have incorporated an additional 9,000 children, mostly young boys, since fighting began.
The first test of Sunday's agreement will be whether armed groups simply lay down their weapons — something that the series of previously broken truces offers little reason to be hopeful of.
Malok said that he was wary of Machar's ability to control all the factions that are ostensibly under his leadership, any one of whom could conceivably lash out and outfit the government with a reason to withdraw from the accord.
"The majority of rebels are not in control of the leader of the opposition, so they can violate at anytime," he said. "I don't have any confidence that the agreement will hold the commitment of the two leaders."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford