The South Sudanese Peace Agreement and the Issue of States

With peace negotiations in South Sudan currently stalled, Dr Jan Pospisil examines the states question – the number of regional states South Sudan should contain and their territorial delineation. Jan is a Senior Researcher at the Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, and a researcher at the Political Settlements Research Programme at the University of Edinburgh.

The implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) is entering a critical stage. After the prolongation of the pre-transition period by 100 days in November 2019, a transitional government which includes the oppositional Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), should be formed by 22 February. After the developments looked promising for some time – SPLM-IO leader and designated first Vice President in a transitional government, Riek Machar, has himself visited Juba several times over the last couple of weeks – the negotiations are now stalled along the issue of the number of regional states South Sudan should contain.

The states problem, and the question of the organisation of the South Sudanese polity in general, has been an issue of permanent contestation since South Sudan’s independence. The current deadlock is a consequence of recent politicking. During the ongoing civil war, in 2015, the SPLM-led government under President Salva Kiir expanded the number of states per decree from initially 10 to 28 and, in January 2017, increased the number even further to 32. While it remains undisputed that decentralisation, devolution or federalism are politically and technically important and that also the oppositional SPLM-IO was leaning towards increasing the number of states, the current challenge is only barely related to issues of governance.

Instead, the question of the number of states and their territorial delineation emerges as the catalyst of two parallel intertwined logics of the South Sudanese political power game: the logic of the political marketplace and the logic of ethnopolitics. The marketplace logic pushes actors to what Alex de Waal has called a payroll peace – an expansion of government positions at several levels that guarantee the effective inclusion of a multiplicity of strongmen and power blocs by taking them on the government payroll. Each of the 32 states is supposed to have a functional state government, which provides respected and remunerated positions for a substantial number of office holders, and their creation is therefore critical to delivering payroll peace.

At the same time, the states potentially turn into effective instruments of ethnopolitical control. 15 of the currently 32 states are said to be under Dinka control, an achievement that involved the shifting of traditional boundaries and the relocation of people. While it is widely undisputed that the instrument of states is necessary for any effective governance and have historically not resulted in ethnopolitically organized boundaries, the current framework runs the risk that this time it will. The threat of forced population movements along the new state boundaries, for instance in former Unity state, underpins this assessment.

The current deadlock is difficult to overcome. The government is restricted by an evolving path dependency of needing to stick to plans it created. Any change to the present framework would require removing already acting governors and state governments from their positions, which is likely to lead to significant tensions. For the SPLM-IO, it appears equally difficult to step away from the demand of reducing the number of states and changing their boundaries for political reasons: some concrete successes need to be presented to their constituencies. A recent attempt by South Africa to suggest settling the issue in a formal process of international arbitration failed spectacularly after both sides for once agreed to reject this approach.

However, a certain leeway for political manoeuvring might exist after the government voiced its principal willingness to open the issue for further considerations. It is still highly unlikely that the issue can be resolved over the course of the next three weeks before a transitional government has to be formed. Thus, it appears, once more, necessary to forge another compromise that leaves the issue unsettled and to be resolved after extensive public consultations at a later stage. International support, such as the current South African meditation initiative, might have to shift from developing solutions to enabling a mutually face-saving postponement. Indeed, the issue of the states should be discussed by a transitional government (rather than in the current pre-transition period), and even by an elected government after the end of a transitional phase. Accepting the current status quo as provisional is a step that the government, at least implicitly, has already taken. Stopping all related forced population movements is a necessity to keep the political process and public trust alive. Guarantees to reopen the issue at a later stage of the process and move on in a status of mutually agreed unsettledness might therefore be more successful than any other last-minute attempt of resolving the issue.

Despite all the problems in its implementation, the R-ARCSS has changed the situation of the country to the better in most regions. Open fighting between the armed factions is rare, in particular since the government and the armed hold-out groups in the Equatoria region agreed to a ceasefire in mid-January. However, the situation remains fragile. Reports show a preparedness on all sides to restart the war if the political impasse of forming a new government continues and produces escalatory dynamics. Problems with the process of the cantonment of troops, especially in the South of the country, add to this risk. Even though the R-ARCSS framework with its focus on payroll-induced power-sharing is unlikely to forge any sustainable political settlement, it is the only institutional set-up on the table that can enable a long-term transitional process, and so ways must be found for it to continue.

For more information about Sudan, read our Spotlight report, Sudan’s Enduring Transition: Evolving Arrangements after the Fall of Bashir and Jan’s previous blog from September 2019, Sudan’s Interim Constitutional Arrangement: The Risk of Sharing a Non-Existent Cake. Visit our publication database for more resources.

The full text of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) is available on the PA-X Peace Agreements Database.

Photo: Jan Pospisil

This article was also published by the CPD Policy Blog.