The South Sudan Peace Deal You Didn’t Hear About Is Already Collapsing

CREDIT: P Photo/AP Video

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, center left, and rebel leader Riek Machar, center right, exchanging signed peace treaties on May 9

Over the weekend, the South Sudan government signed an agreement with the rebels its been fighting for the better part of five months in a bid to finally bring the young country out of the civil war that has slipped below international headlines for months. Less than forty-eight hours later, the deal is in its death throes, leaving hundreds of thousands of displaced South Sudanese unsure of what’s next.

South Sudan president Silva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar on Friday signed an agreement that was intended to break the stalemate and end the crisis that has caused thousands to flee their homes in the face of the fighting. Under the watch of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development, a collection of African states that has been leading the talks between the two, both sides agreed that there was no military solution for South Sudan, ordered a new ceasefire between forces, and that a transitional unity government will be formed to usher in reconciliation between the sides.

Upon returning to South Sudan on Sunday, however, Kiir immediately denounced the deal, claiming that he was coerced into signing it through threats from the Ethiopian prime minister. “[Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Dessalegn] told me that ‘if you don’t sign this, I will arrest you here’,” Kiir said before a crowd at Juba International Airport. “I said ‘if you arrest me in this good place, I am sure I will get good food. So there will be no need to return to Juba. You will feed me for free here.'” Kiir claimed that the same threat was made against Machar, also announcing at the same airport visit that South Sudan’s next presidential elections will be postponed from 2015 to 2017 at the earliest.

Both sides quickly sought to blame each other for violations of the ceasefire in the field, each claiming to Reuters that they had been fired upon and were merely defending themselves. This is the second cease-fire that has collapsed since the fighting first began in December. Territory has traded hands between the two sides frequently, with competition especially fierce over the town of Bentiu, in the oil-rich Unity state.

The conflict started when soldiers loyal to Machar — who was dismissed along with most of the rest of the Cabinet last July — refused to be disarmed. After a period where the government’s claims of a coup attempt seemed murky at best, Machar claimed that Kiir was merely executing a purge of his competitors and violence spread across the country as the government’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army have clashed with Machar’s rebels. Since then, the clashes have resulted in heightened tensions between the two predominant ethnic groups in the country. President Kiir is a member of the Dinka, while Machar is Nuer, statuses that have resulted in displaced South Sudanese refusing even to be sheltered together in United Nations camps and compounds.

The outcome of Friday’s signing ceremony is most likely far from the result that Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped would come from pressing the two sides to the table. Earlier this month, Kerry visited South Sudan in hopes of drawing both sides to the negotiating table, which resulted in the meeting in Ethiopia with both leaders present. The United States also recently followed through on its threat to sanction individuals involved in the fighting in the the state it helped create, placing travel restrictions and asset freezes on Gen. Peter Gadet, who defected from the government in favor of the rebels, South Sudanese Presidential Guard commander Marial Chanuong.

Caution shown in the hours after the deal proved prescient, as analysts and government officials offered their hedged praise over the deal. “Today’s agreement to immediately stop the fighting in South Sudan and to negotiate a transitional government could mark a breakthrough for the future of South Sudan,” Kerry said in a statement on Friday (emphasis added). Enough Project analyst Akshaya Kumar likewise said, “while necessary, this agreement is not sufficient for a lasting and durable peace. For that, much more inclusive negotiations and reconciliation including a wider range of stakeholders will be necessary, otherwise it’s hard to see how this deal will make a difference on the ground.”

The continuation of fighting will prolong the plight of the 1.3 million people who have been forced to flee in the face of the violence. Around 86,000 of those are currently sheltering in U.N. bases and compounds across the country, which are overcrowded and at risk for rapidly spreading disease. These compounds have also come under attack for allegedly harboring rebels, a charge that resulted in pro-government youth storming one such base and killing dozens and injuring hundreds more as U.N. peacekeepers attempted to repel them.

For months now, the United Nations has warned that the funds to provide for the 4.9 million South Sudanese in need just aren’t materializing from the international community. For example, as of March, of the $8 million the World Health Organization has requested to provide critical care in South Sudan, the organization has only received 23 percent. Other aid agencies have not fared better as South Sudan’s struggle has remained for the most part out of the international spotlight. Now with the collapse of the deal signed just last week, it would seem that the displaced will have longer to wait before they return home and longer still before they can feel safe.