Currently out of the headlines, South Sudan’s war, which began in December 2013, is a brutal competition for power between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. This conflict in the world’s youngest state has left tens of thousands dead. In August, African mediators drafted a “Compromise Peace Agreement” to try to end the fighting. The U.S. role was to ratchet up pressure on the warring leaders to sign it. This was difficult enough — but maintaining smart pressure on those leaders for sufficient time to actually implement the deal will prove well-nigh impossible.
The United States’ support for peace in South Sudan offers a lesson in the shortcomings of the dominant American model for fixing countries in conflict: squeeze their leaders until they cry “uncle” and agree to pretend to be democrats. The problem with this is that the pretense cannot be upheld for long. Different, more complex tools are needed to consolidate a ceasefire and establish a workable power-sharing arrangement. To keep the peace, South Sudanese leaders need enough funds, and the discretion to use them, to grease the wheels of their patronage machines and buy a real peace that’s not just on paper. If the U.S. is to involve itself in fixing conflicts — and not just in South Sudan — it needs to recognize this disagreeable truth.
The Compromise Peace Agreement follows the standard template: power-sharing among belligerents; attempts to make security arrangements (a ceasefire and building a national military and security sector); division of national wealth; elections; and a truth, reconciliation, and justice process. It’s attractive on paper, but lacks the fundamental requirements of a working deal. There’s little goodwill, either between the leaders who signed the deal, or between them and the outside parties — their African neighbors and the United States — who imposed it. President Kiir was conspicuously reluctant, and felt insulted when his detailed reservations were unceremoniously discarded. Machar, too, has been visibly skeptical, dragging his feet on filling in the details of the security plan.
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