Delays in the implementation of South Sudan’s peace agreement are creating risk of renewed conflict and impunity, which can be addressed through citizen action, writes Emmanuel Ayoola.

Implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan has proved elusive. This delay portends grave danger for sustainable peace and accountability in the region, and for the people of South Sudan. They remain on a long and arduous journey to justice, which calls for citizen action supported by civil society.

This journey began with the end of the conflict in 2013, which led to the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. The parties to this agreement were South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and current First Vice President Riek Machar, who was then leader of a rebel group. Chapter 5 of the agreement made specific provisions for the creation of a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, a Compensation and Reparation Authority and an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan.

These entities are expected to play the strategic roles of engendering national reconciliation and healing, supporting survivors and prosecuting perpetrators. Yet, these key interventions with their lofty intentions have remained on the pages of the agreement, with little or no translation to implementation.

Delays and Promises

A popular proverb from the Yoruba people of West Africa speaks to the danger inherent in undue delays: Bi a ba pe lori imin esinsin kesinsin a maa kun ni. It loosely translates in English to mean that when a person spends a long period of time defecating in one spot, he plays host to unwanted flies. While this illustration may not be the best way to describe a transitional justice process, it sure drives home the message.

Indeed, the delay brought about an unwanted resurgence of conflict. In 2016, there was another major armed conflict, which led the parties back to the negotiation table and resulted in the 2018 Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan. This agreement established the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity, with the mandate of organising a democratic general election after a transitional period of 36 months. Just like the agreement of 2015, the revitalised peace agreement has suffered delays. For instance, the general election has been shifted twice. There were no elections in 2015 and again in 2018, with the South Sudanese government citing instability as the reason for the postponement. There is fresh speculation that the election may not occur in 2023 as planned.

Amid these delays, there have been promises and reassuring political statements but very little action. No one expected the implementation of the agreement to be a stroll in the park, due to the nature of the proposed interventions and how extensive their impacts are expected to be. It is evident, however, that the government of South Sudan lacks the will to ensure implementation. The reasons for this are not far-fetched. Being key players in the war, top government officials are wary of holding themselves accountable for the atrocities committed. Furthermore, loss of political power and control is not an exciting thought for these officials, who would rather maintain the status quo.

This lack of political will continues to affect the fragile peace in South Sudan. Violent clashes have continued across the country. In Unity State alone, at least 70 people were killed between February and April this year. Across the country, there are widespread reports of sexual assaults, beheadings and burning of civilians by armed groups.

The country is also gradually losing the external support necessary for implementing the peace agreement. For instance, the United States government has hinted at reallocating most of the $5 million it provided to support the establishment of the Hybrid Court. Some of the funds are to be returned to the US Treasury and some allocated to other programmes in South Sudan. This is no doubt a huge loss for transitional justice efforts in the country.

In like manner, the African Union has not enjoyed the cooperation of the South Sudanese authorities in driving the process for setting up the Hybrid Court. This means that the African Union’s technical support remains on paper, yet to see the light of the day.

Way Forward

What is the way out of what appears to be a dead end? The words of Portuguese writer José Saramago come to mind: “As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved—it’s the citizen who changes things.”

While the primary responsibility for driving the implementation of the peace agreement lies with the government, we can agree that citizen action can set that wheel in motion where there is a lack of political will. Unless the South Sudanese people become adequately empowered to demand that the government implement the peace deal, sustainable peace and justice may continue to be elusive.

The influence of regional actors on the government of South Sudan has not yielded much. Civil society therefore can look towards promoting people-powered action among South Sudanese citizens through human rights education, awareness campaigns and activism drives, in a manner that enables citizens to hold the government accountable to the peace deal. There are numerous examples of how citizen action has driven social change across the world. This can also happen in South Sudan, led by South Sudanese citizens for peace and justice.

Emmanuel Ayoola
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Emmanuel Ayoola is a human rights lawyer and a transitional justice practitioner.

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