Adam Valavanis is a volunteer intern in the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
On September 12 in Ethiopia, President Salva Kiir and former vice president and opposition leader Riek Machar signed what was meant to be the final peace deal in South Sudan’s civil war, bringing an end to nearly five years of fighting. The new deal would return Machar to power, where he would serve as the “first” of five vice presidents, and maintain Kiir as president. Despite this latest development, the promise of lasting peace in South Sudan remains a distant hope.
Fighting between rebels, ostensibly under Machar’s command, and government forces, ostensibly under Kiir’s, resumed less than one week after the signing. But it is not clear if these skirmishes are related to the content of the recent deal; soldiers on both sides have reportedly engaged in violence at the behest of local leaders, rather than of Kiir or Machar, signaling a broken chain of command. Nevertheless, this violation comes three months after the collapse of a previous ceasefire, the Khartoum Declaration, which was signed in late June.
The United States, United Kingdom, and Norway, commonly referred to as the Troika and who supported South Sudan’s push for independence in 2011, expressed concerns over this most recent peace deal. Their skepticism is at least partly the result of years of consistently broken ceasefires.
But even if these skirmishes ended and Kiir and Machar successfully reined in their forces, it is hard to believe that the current peace deal would prevent the country from sliding back into civil war in the months and years to follow. At its core, the deal fails to address the root causes of the civil war: unequal access to government resources and near-authoritarian powers of the president. Instead, it reaffirms the presidency’s enormous powers, which are codified in the 2011 transitional constitution.
Specifically, the transitional constitution grants unchecked powers to the office of the presidency, such as the power to appoint and dismiss elected representatives at the federal and state levels. Before the outbreak of violence in 2013, Kiir and Machar butted heads over the unequal distribution of power in government; Machar reportedly felt that he was effectively shut out from power in his role as vice president. Meanwhile, Kiir began consolidating his rule and undermining the country’s nascent democracy. In this context, Machar understood that any attempt to unseat Kiir in the future via democratic elections was fruitless. With his sacking in 2013, it became clear to Machar that his only remaining avenue to the presidency was to take up arms, which he did later that year.
If the country is to see lasting peace, any future deals must radically reform the transitional constitution to promote inclusivity and diffuse power away from the office of the president. By instituting a parliamentary executive, federalism, and proportional representation, South Sudan will begin to ensure stable democratic rule in the country. In light of the political splintering that has occurred in the last few years, a diverse array of parties, particularly rebel groups, must be included in all future peace talks. By excluding them, any government that results from these talks risks lacking the requisite support to prevent war.