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Today, South Sudan’s government and opposition forces signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Following weeks of intense mediated talks, this agreement is just the first step on South Sudan's long road to a durable peace. Violence in South Sudan began in late December, and negotiations had been deadlocked over the issue of 11 political detainees, whom opposition forces, led by former Vice President Riek Machar, wanted to be freed before discussing a ceasefire.
Our policy analyst, Akshaya Kumar, shares the seven things you need to know about the agreement and what it means for peace in South Sudan.
1. Who signed the agreement?
Following weeks of protracted negotiations in Addis Ababa, the government of South Sudan has just signed a cessation of hostilities agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition. Nhial Deng Nhial signed the agreement on behalf of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and General Taban Deng Gai signed on behalf of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition.
Practically, this means that forces aligned with sitting South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and those forces aligned with former Vice President and senior ruling party official, Riek Machar, are to cease hostilities against one another.
2. If they are part of the same political party, why were they fighting one another?
Although both sides claim allegiance to the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, South Sudan's most powerful political party, they have been at odds for some time. In July 2013, President Kiir fired his entire cabinet and removed Machar from his role as vice-president. What was largely a political crisis within the ruling party mutated into a violent conflict on December 15, 2013. Since then, over half a million people have been displaced from their homes, entire towns have been razed, and thousands have died. Disturbing reports of violence moving along ethnic lines have been documented by human rights groups and the U.N.
3. What does this new agreement mean for ongoing combat operations? Will it stop the fighting?
The agreement is supposed to go into effect 24 hours after the signing. For weeks, both sides have been launching offensive military operations in an attempt to gain leverage in the negotiations by expanding their territorial claims on the ground. Now, the South Sudanese government has gained control of all of the country’s major cities and towns, including Juba, Bor, Bentiu, Mayom, and Malakal. Forces aligned with the armed opposition still hold significant oil producing areas.
According to the agreement, the parties shall “commit to immediately cease all military operations and freeze their forces” in place. The agreement also calls for the redeployment of “allied forces invited by either side”, which most analysts agree is a delicate way of saying that Ugandan troops currently in South Sudan should be drawn down.
4. Who is going to monitor that both sides stick to the terms of the deal?
The agreement sets up a Joint Monitoring and Verification Team which will be composed of representatives from IGAD, member states, the two parties, and other partners. The IGAD Security Council also recently authorized 5,500 troops for South Sudan. Many expect that these regional forces will be heavily involved in monitoring the cessation of hostilities.
What's cool about the agreement is that it involves local communities. The team is supposed to “collaborate with local communities in performance of their work, have focal points known as local committees, and identify the local committees from traditional and religious leaders, women and youth representatives.” The inclusion of this particular feature might mean that the agreement and peace process have a better chance of being embraced by local communities throughout South Sudan.
5. I heard something about detainees? Who are they? Will they be released?
The Government of South Sudan detained 11 senior SPLM party officials early on during the fighting on allegations that they were involved in plotting a coup against the ruling government.
A separate Agreement on the Status of Detainees was also signed by the parties. That agreement recognizes that IGAD and the Partners of IGAD are to “undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees.” Though neither agreement actually commits to the immediate release of the detainees, openly addressing this issue is an important step forward. These individuals have now been detained for over a month without clear charges being presented against them in a court of law. Their release will help facilitate the next steps of political dialogue and discourse necessary in South Sudan.
6. Is this agreement the same thing as a ceasefire?
Well, not exactly. A ceasefire and a cessation of hostilities agreement are two distinct things. Practically, since this agreement also includes provisions for a joint monitoring and verification mission, it mirrors a lot of the components of a ceasefire. However, unlike a lot of ceasefires, it doesn't call for the United Nations to be involved in monitoring violations. Instead, it leaves that in the hands of the two parties, plus their mediator, the regional IGAD organization.
7. So, does this mean that peace is on the horizon?
In South Sudan, the hardest negotiations are still ahead. Even if all combatants lay down their arms as a result of today's agreement - which is far from guaranteed - a sustainable resolution to the crisis will require an inclusive national dialogue around the country's governance framework, a commitment to accountability, and security sector reform.
As White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "This is a first critical step in ending the violence ... we expect both parties to fully and swiftly implement the agreement. The United States urges both sides to build on this momentum by moving swiftly to an inclusive political dialogue." While undeniably a significant milestone, this cessation of hostilities is not the end of the peace process. In fact, it is just the beginning.
Photo: Displaced persons arrive in Bor, South Sudan (AP)