On Feb. 21, South Sudan President Salva Kiir appointed his main rival, rebel leader Riek Machar, as his first vice president, hastily meeting a twice-missed deadline to form a transitional government of national unity as part of a power-sharing agreement signed in September 2018. The agreement followed a brutal civil war that killed 400,000 and has displaced 3.5 million in South Sudan since 2013.
Regional and international powers, including the U.S., welcomed the breakthrough and warned that difficult tasks remain — in particular, the implementation of the security arrangements and the reform agenda.
No doubt, the formation of the government is a key development. It signals the end of the war, but not necessarily the beginning of peace. Non-signatories with significant constituencies, particularly in the breadbasket region of Equatoria, remain outside the agreement. The most critical question remains: whether formation of the government will lead to sustainable peace, justice and development.
This is not a government by the people and for the people of South Sudan. This is a government formed to ease the external pressure and conserve the vested interests of a political class; hence, it does not address the structural vices of the troubled South Sudan.
The reality is that South Sudan is a failed transition because its political elites have not provided an inclusive vision that could have taken the country on a prosperous path after independence in 2011. The trouble with South Sudan is structural. Since independence, political, economic and social challenges have emerged, including the lack of inclusive citizenship, weak institutional capacity and rampant corruption, among others. The power-sharing agreement fails to address these structural problems. In fact, the government formation rewards South Sudan’s political elites who shoulder the responsibility for the country’s troubles.
A recent damaging report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan states that the people of South Sudan are being “deliberately starved, systematically surveilled and silenced, arbitrarily arrested and detained and denied meaningful access to justice.” The report says government officials were implicated in the “pillaging of public funds” — money that could have been utilized to help millions of impoverished South Sudanese.
Unsurprisingly, South Sudan’s political elites seem more interested in power and wealth. They have not yet acknowledged that the reform of state institutions is critical to this process, and the quest for justice must be seen as part of the political process of instituting a credible and legitimate transitional government.
The social fabric of the society has been fractured and disfigured by the inhuman brutality of the war. The politicization of ethnic belonging, the forced displacement of ethnic minorities, and the absence of justice and accountability make the process of forgiveness and reconciliation a daunting task. Thus, without instituting the rule of law and accountability, those who fled their homes will not be able to make the journey home. In their absence, the new government and its interlocutors cannot build trust and confidence.
The formation of a transitional government is not enough if it does not adhere to a new set of political institutions that will advance the interests of the citizenry. Such an approach entails the development of intellectual resources that cultivate possibilities for peaceful coexistence. After all, nations and states are imagined and made, not inherited by their populations. They are made by a multitude of communities who voluntarily agree, despite their diversities, to live together, governed by a set of shared values and institutions.
If the region and international community continue to push its political class to share political power at the expense of structural changes, the future of South Sudan most probably will be marked by continuing troubles. However, the ongoing peace process sponsored by Sant’Egidio in Rome could offer a rare opportunity to address the flaws in the agreement, reach a political deal between the government and non-signatories, enable the displaced to return home and pave the way for an inclusive environment for a sustainable peace in South Sudan.
Amir Idris is a professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York.