As news of South Sudan fades from the UK headlines, it is easy to think that no news is good news. But there are still big hurdles to jump. On the one hand, the uneasy truce between President Salva Kiir and the reinstated Vice-President Riek Machar appears to be holding. The President has even been seen to speak out in favour of protecting the VP when he is travelling to areas in which he has traditionally lacked support, such as in Bahr el-Ghazal where he was speaking at rallies this week. The VP himself even apologised for the damage done by the in-fighting within the SPLM which erupted when its mission for “liberation” from Sudan had been achieved. These shows of unity and mutual support across what have been entrenched divisions should be celebrated.
On the other hand, at least four big challenges remain. The first is that a fragile ceasefire is being maintained through the creation of joint security forces. This idea has “form”; it was tried in vain as part of encouraging unity in the interim period which preceded the break-up of then Sudan in 2011. The country can ill afford more armed officers, or to divert more of its national budget to paying them. There are those though who will argue with some justification that if someone has a gun it is better to put him (or her, but usually him) in a uniform and give him an official role.
The second is the tendency to divide the country into ever smaller units by proliferating the number of counties and states, each under the jurisdiction of competing commissioners, governors and vice-presidents. This may work in the short term to maintain a balance of power but does little in the longer term to foster the sense of positive national identity the country needs in order to flourish.
The third is related to the first two, in that the agreement is one of power sharing rather than peace, focusing national expenditure on armed forces rather than development and making the investment in national infrastructure and service provision – including education – more challenging.
The fourth is that not all armed groups have signed up to the agreement, so pockets of violence remain. Violence continues in Eastern Equatoria and in Yei River state, which blocks trade with Kenya and Uganda, and this week one faction which did not sign the agreement, the South Sudan United Front, demanded face-to-face talks with the government. Regional mediators are resisting such attempts at breaking up the multi-lateral agreement by negotiating separate bilateral accords with non-signatories, but these demands highlight the agreement’s fragility as well as the resolve of many of those responsible for encouraging respect for the rule of law.
At the same time, bishops and other civil society representatives are stepping up their calls for non-violence, and their voices are being heard. Ibba Girls’ Boarding School continues to show that the country can, does and will benefit from investment in its future. Even in such a fragile context, we need to prepare a generation which sees peace as more than a peace agreement and which is equipped to lead the country in such a way that the root causes of conflict can be addressed.