After two ceasefires that saw fighting resume before the ink on them had dried, the conflict in South Sudan might finally be ebbing thanks to the threat of sanctions by neighboring countries.
Thousands have died and over 1.3 million have been displaced since violence broke out in December between mostly Dinka forces loyal to president Salva Kiir and predominantly Nuer rebels under his former vice president Riek Machar.
At only their second face-to-face meeting since fighting began, Kiir and Machar agreed Tuesday to lay down their arms and form a transitional government within 60 days.
The US imposed sanctions last month on two commanders, one from each side. After dithering over prolonged peace talks in Addis Ababa that have cost $17 million, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an east African trading bloc, is now threatening sanctions of its own.
“They agreed fully to commit themselves to the already signed agreements and to complete all negotiations within the coming 60 days and then establish a transitional government of national unity,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
“If they don’t abide to this agreement, IGAD as an organization will act to implement peace in South Sudan,” he added. “On that, we have different options, including sanctions and punitive actions as well.”
There’s a sense that this current detente, which will employ IGAD monitoring teams, has enough stopgaps that it might actually stick. But Uganda, one of the most powerful countries in IGAD, has been fighting on the side of government forces. The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) declined to comment on Uganda’s conflict of interest.
“This is the strongest commitment we have seen from both parties to the conflict since fighting broke out in December,” said Cecilia Millan, Oxfam’s South Sudan country director. “It can’t be allowed to go on any longer.”
Some of the conflict’s worst fighting followed a cessation of hostilities agreement that was reached in January.
An April massacre in Bentiu in which hundreds of Dinka and Darfuri civilians were summarily executed by rebels incited by radio broadcasts marked a particularly dark turning point. That attack and the killing by an armed mob days later of dozens of Nuers at a UN base in Bor prompted visits from US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.
In May, Kiir and Machar met in Addis Ababa for the first time since December and within hours had signed an official truce. Neither leader was enthusiastic about the agreement, however. It later emerged that Hailemariam had threatened to arrest Machar if he didn’t comply.
Predictably, skirmishes again broke out, though on a smaller level.
Several countries, including China, have promised to send troops to augment the UNMISS peacekeeping mission. But only 1,500 of an additional 5,500 soldiers approved by the Security Council in December have arrived. There are currently 8,500 UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.
UN peacekeepers have struggled to protect civilians, even the 93,000 that have taken shelter in their own bases. The real test will be whether those displaced by the fighting feel safe enough to return home.
“Ultimately the way to see if a truce is holding and whether people are confident is if they go to their homes,” Ariane Quentier, spokesperson for UNMISS, told VICE News. “Since the May 9 agreement we have actually had even more people coming to our bases.”
When reinforcements do arrive, they will be charged with a new mandate pushed by the US and approved by the Security Council in May.
Previously, the mission had been focused on ensuring security as a facet of the country’s development. The new resolution, however, cut out those aims and introduced a narrow focus on protection of civilians.
Citing the shift, UNMISS chief Hilde Johnson announced that she would step down in July. Johnson has been accused of being too close to the South Sudanese leadership and being caught unaware by a conflict that many saw coming.
The UN has not announced a successor to the post.
As it worsened, the fighting became increasingly pointless even in military terms. Key oil hubs like Bentiu changed hands again and again. With each retreat of government or rebel forces, civilians were left unprotected and at the mercy of soldiers bent on ethnic revenge.
The conflict has wrecked the South Sudanese economy. Oil production, which provides the government with 99 percent of its revenue, has been severely affected.
But even if production returns to normal, it will be meaningless for the estimated four million in South Sudan in danger of starvation. The UN estimates that 235,000 children are on track to suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and 50,000 could die if not given proper treatment.
“The rainy season is really settling in,” said Quentier. “We only have a few weeks to do as much as we can.”
The paralysis has kept farmers from tending to their fields.
“We need more than ever for people to plant their seeds and its already getting too late,” Quentier added.
Contributing to the misery is an outbreak of cholera in Juba, the nation’s capital. Since the end of April, the UN has reported 1,500 cases and 31 deaths as a result of the disease.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford