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President Salva Kiir eventually appended his signature on 26 August to the peace deal with his rival Riek Machar. The agreement is set to be debated and ratified by parliament. Will it bring an end to the complex crisis that has plagued Africa’s youngest nation for nearly two years?


August 17, 2015 will go down in the history of diplomacy as an anticlimax in peace negotiations. The whole world had its eyes fixed on Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, for a landmark signing of the peace deal between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his rival. Global media, international observers, IGAD-Plus delegates, and a few heads of state from the region, as well as religious leaders, had all converged on Africa’s capital city (as Addis is affectionately called) to witness the peace deal that would end the long suffering and violent conflict in South Sudan. This euphoria turned into tears (symbolized by Rebecca Garang, wife of revered South Sudanese nationalist John Garang, who burst into tears over the failed peace deal). The feeling clearly was that of frustration, anger, disappointment, rage, and fear for the future.

Even from a diplomatic point of view the failure is problematic. At an interview, one of the principals expressed shock that President Salva Kiir could arrive in Addis Ababa and fail to sign the deal. Salva Kiir raised concerns that he still had to “consult Juba” on some issues. Observers were left wondering what those issues were that just emerged after IGAD-Plus, UN and the US Government had issued an ultimatum for August 17. Why was everything to be put on hold for another 15 days for President Salva Kiir to append his signature? Was there more than met the eye in the South Sudan peace process? I will try to examine some bottlenecks that I have termed conundrums that have plagued South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation. Until these conundrums are fully comprehended and a solution found to address them, we might be in for a protracted and embarrassing diplomatic game.


The route Juba and Addis Ababa has been extremely busy since the war in South Sudan started in 2013. Thrice signatures have been appended to peace deals to be followed by resumption of fighting. But the August 2015 ultimatum peace deal had what many observers felt would be the best option - a compromise power-sharing deal that provided for a transitional government. The deal would see the principal actors share power, with Riek Machar being the Vice President, while Salva Kiir would retain the presidency. Other goodies in the deal included: sharing political offices with an agreed formula; demilitarization of the capital city Juba; two armies; elections after three years of the transitional arrangement. IGAD would provide a stand-by force while Ugandans troops would return home.

This proposed peace deal clearly suggests that the issue at hand is power sharing between the main protagonists and their constituencies, known and unknown. As the saying goes: “half a loaf is better than no bread.”


The checkered peace process in South Sudan cannot be divorced from the armed conflict that erupted in 2013. The conflict was apparently sparked off just after a meeting had been going on to decide on some constitutional matters. So one version of the conflict is that it is deep down a political crisis emanating from the unresolved power issues that are in turn linked to constitutionalism.

Next to the political question is the issue of identity in South Sudan—called the ethnic question. How does one build a modern state amidst complex ethnic identities that compete for state power and resources each in their own fashion? The fact that the main principals in the conflict Riek Machar and Salva Kiir represent the two main dominant tribes (Nuer and Dinka respectively) who formed the bulk of Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, says volumes about the ethnic complexion of the South Sudan conflict. Of course it is an oversimplification to argue that the conflict is sharply along ethnic cleavage. You will find members of the two main contesting ethnic groups in either camp. This complicates matters further. But also there are other smaller ethnic groups represented within the high ranks of the two sides of the conflict. This is what makes the conflict a conundrum of great magnitude.

When you do not get any clues from Prof. Mahmood Mamdani (arguably Africa’s no. 1 political guru about South Sudan’s delayed peace process) know that we are dealing with a situation where even angels fear to tread. So those who rushed in to offer solutions beware; and so are those who rushed to offer comprehensive explanations.

Could this epistemological conundrum be behind President Salva Kiir’s initial hesitation to come to Addis Ababa for signing of the peace deal, and eventually coming but refusing to sign it? It is hard to comprehend why a whole head of state would take a plane, travel to Addis Ababa, enter the venue of the peace deal, see his nemesis put his signature on the peace deal, and then do the unimaginable—refuse to sign and tell the whole world that he has to return to Juba to do further consultation for two more weeks.


What makes the South Sudan conflict exceedingly difficult to comprehend, let alone to resolve, is the whole range of actors and their interests. Do we know who these are and what their interests are? Ask any one about South Sudan’s conflict and you will get a cocktail of explanations. One school of thought claims that is the Khartoum government fuelling the crisis to discredit the entire project of cessation. “We told you that this young nation was not ready” goes the argument. Independence euphoria does not build a state, claims this school. So could Bashir be the invisible hand behind the Riek Machar rebellion to disrupt the new nation of South Sudan? Who knows?

South Sudan is home to plenty of oil reserves and so it should not be a surprise that some rich nations or companies have a hand in the conflict. There is a Rukiga/Runyankore saying that “Tihariho embwa y’enshema aha rufu rw’ente”—translated as “There is no foolish dog at the death of a cow.” This age-old saying suggests that at every misfortune there are always some profiteers who take advantage of the crisis. If South Sudan is in conflict, surely some one might be gaining. Who sells ammunitions to the warring parties? Who gets oil tenders when the conflict is over? In a land-locked country such as South Sudan, surely there are some small arms dealers who are making a killing as long as the war rages.

The interests in South Sudan are not just military and commercial, but also strategic and geopolitical. South Sudan lies along the Nile River—the most strategic water mass on the continent. Neighboring countries that form the Nile Basin Initiative cannot stand by and watch as this strategic nation slides into chaos. And if there are some regional and international actors who are benefiting from South Sudan, and are at the same time taking part in the peace process, how neutral and objective can they be? On this issue, the Bakiga/Banyankore have a saying: “Enkobe tecwa ogweihamba”—translated as: A monkey does not adjudicate on a case involving a forest. If you want to decide whether to set the forest on fire, you do not ask a monkey to be a judge. The verdict is obvious—the monkey will save its home.

When there are many hidden actors with divergent or conflicting interests, then you have a conflict that will go on and on until cows come home. Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia are for sure interested parties when it comes to the affairs of South Sudan. Then add China, UK, USA, and Canada. When the UN thinks of sanctions, there must be individual states in the Security Council who see the security of South Sudan as very strategic for international and regional peace and security. You do not want to have a failed state next to Somalia, Sudan, and Egypt. There is a lot at stake in terms of geopolitics.

Could this conundrum be behind President Salva Kiir’s shocking refusal to sign the peace deal on August 17, 2015? It is difficult to believe that Salva Kiir was alone in deciding to avoid putting his signature on the peace deal. Who encouraged him that: “Mr. President you are in charge of South Sudan, do not allow to be pushed around by a mere rebel, who after all had tried to overthrow a legitimate government.” Did some one assure Salva Kiir that in case sanctions are slapped on him he would be supported to withstand them?


Political scientists and constitutional lawyers know too well that nation building is not an event but a long and hard process that takes generations if not centuries. South Sudan was involved in a protracted war against the Khartoum government for decades. Confronting the Khartoum government gave the Southerners some sense of unity and common purpose. Thanks to John Garang, the battle was won and a comprehensive peace treaty gave way to the new state of South Sudan through a referendum. It is common knowledge that John Garang was not for secession. He probably knew that with secession the demon of sectarianism based on ethnicity would grip the newest African nation and throw it into conflict. His fears may have been confirmed in 2013.

One wonders whether the mysterious demise of John Garang left behind a power vacuum with no leader with gravitas to mobilize the new state for a common vision beyond narrow ethnic interests. Civic virtues such as public discourse, dialogue instead of violence, common good instead of individual interests, are instilled in citizens over a long period of time, but above all they must be seen among the top leaders.

Being united by war against the Khartoum government was not sufficient to create a national ethos for South Sudan. One wonders how much civic education went on even as the war against the Khartoum government was raging. One wonders what subjects that instill civic consciousness are being taught in South Sudan. Oftentimes comments are heard that South Sudanese have a sense of entitlement to the extent of arbitrarily demanding revenue and services from foreigners who have invested in South Sudan. Basically, the rule of law is in question here. Countries such as Uganda and Kenya who hosted South Sudanese during hard times had hoped that they would be treated nicely in the newly born state. There are complaints that there is some xenophobia growing in South Sudan.

Could this conundrum be the cause of the stalled peace process? Is lack of leadership and national cohesion the major threat to South Sudan’s peace process? Can one have peace without unity and a common purpose?


The conflict in South Sudan has cast a shadow on the much-hyped slogan of “African solutions to African problems.” One wonders whether African solutions have not failed the people of South Sudan. Whenever intervention is mentioned in international relations the concern of national sovereignty and non-interference comes up. The question of duties beyond borders is a legitimate one. Should a neighbor’s house catch fire, practical wisdom demands that the neighbor comes up to give a helping hand even without being asked. But such intervention from neighbors needs to be based on principle--how long should the neighbor stay after helping; what the helping neighbor can be given in return; how to cooperate with other neighbors who come to help.

The conflict in South Sudan has attracted all manner of responses. Regional bodies have tried several solutions. Different venues have been used: Arusha, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi. AU, IGAD, and EAC are the main regional bodies that have tried to mediate. UN has also stepped in. EU and other donors have been providing funds for negotiations. The issue is not whether foreign intervention is needed, rather it is the question of what kind of intervention and how.

Could this conundrum be responsible for the delayed peace process? Could the competing and even conflicting models of intervention be the cause of the failed peace process?


Elections are always mentioned as a solution to conflict. Let the vote decide or the famous phrase “ballot not bullet.” In the case of South Sudan just like other highly ethnicized polities, elections are likely to polarized along ethnic lines. Political parties tend to be a continuation of ethnic identity formation. If the two principals of the South Sudan peace process were to contest for power in the next elections, their respective ethnic communities would rally behind them. The small ethnic communities would have to decide with whom to ally. We have seen this political engineering at play in Kenya, which is a fairly advanced modern state. Some analysts would argue that if ethnic alliances can be formed and elections are held freely and peacefully, so be it. After all, all politics is based on some form of identity: religion, class, gender, ethnicity, and race.

Is it likely that the South Sudan peace process is failing precisely because the country is still unsure of the inevitable ballot as the only legitimate process for determining who rules? The issue beneath might as well be that South Sudan needs a major constitutional reform to tease out things with greater detail. If the country is so ethnically polarized, might a federal system be the way to go? The bullet has dominated South Sudan politics and so it is vital to pay close attention to the role of the military in national politics. This is why the issue of demilitarizing Juba is the most contested issue in the peace deal. The related challenge as far as militarism is concerned is the gradual transformation of rebel army into a national professional army that is under civilian control.


South Sudan is a place of intense religious beliefs and sentiments born of a complex mix of Christianity and traditional religions. Both the Dinka and Nuer hold strong cosmological beliefs that one can be sure these beliefs are being invoked during times of war. Some might be wondering whether the delayed peace process is in fact a work of divinities.

A Sunday before the ill-fated August 17 deadline Bishop Emeritus Taride Taban from South Sudan presided over the celebration of the 10:00 AM mass at Holy Saviour Catholic Church in the middle of Addis Ababa. He called on the faithful to pray for the peace deal. On a sad note he mentioned how he had had come to Addis Ababa for the third time. Twice the signed accord had not delivered peace; the hope was that this third time would bring lasting peace.

The preacher on that Sunday Fr. Protas Opondo, S.J., dwelt extensively on the theme of Jesus as the bread of life. He stressed the need to translate this teaching into acts of love for one another. The Choir that day chose hymns that had the theme of peace and love as if they knew what was going on with the peace deal in the city of Addis Ababa.

Liturgical hymns can be radical with a revolutionary message of social justice. So what did the worshippers at Holy Savior invoke God and remind themselves to do about the conflict of South Sudan? The entrance hymn went thus:

“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

“Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true, where all God’s children dare to seek the dream God’s reign anew. Here the cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace; Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus;

“Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat; a banquet hall on holy ground, where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space, as we share in Christ the feat that feed us.”

All that South Sudan needs is in this beautiful hymn: love, safety, forgiveness, end of divisions, truth, justice, peace and sharing.

But the most moving hymn was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi “Make me a Channel of your peace.” The version that was used is:

“Lord make me a means of your peace.
Where there is hatred grown, let me sow your love. Where there is injury, Lord, let forgiveness be my sword. Lord make me a means of your peace.

“Lord make me a means of your peace.
Where there is doubt and fear, let me sow your faith, in this world’s despair, give me hope in your to share. Lord make me a means of your peace.

“Lord make me a means of your peace.
When there is sadness here let me sow your joy. When the darkness nears, may your light dispel our fears. Lord make me a means of your peace.

“Lord grant me to seek and to share.
Less to be consoled than to help console, less to be understood than to understood your good. Lord make me a means of your peace.

“Lord grant me to seek and to share.
To receive love less than to give love free,
Just to give in thee, just receiving form your tree. Lord make me a means of your peace.

“Lord make me a means of your peace.
To forgive in Thee, you’ve forgiven me: for to die in Thee is eternal life to me. Lord make me a means of your peace.”

South Sudan needs peace and all people of good will, and especially the leaders of South Sudan need to work for peace. They need to work for reconciliation. They need to promote sharing. They need to bring love. If all people became instruments of peace, the world would be a paradise. The fate of South Sudan is not in the stars but in the hands of South Sudanese.


The conundrums plaguing the South Sudan peace process need to be carefully looked at. Truth should be told. Actors and interests behind the South Sudan conflict need to be exposed. Both African solutions and international solutions are needed in this globalized world. Ultimately, the vote will have to decide who rules but more constitutional reforms may be needed. In a country where faith plays a major role in the public sphere, religious values as contained in some of the liturgical hymns, need to be cultivated. When human efforts fail, it is not wrong to try divine means.

* Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology, Addis Ababa, where he is also Dean of Philosophy Department and is Editor of Justice Peace and Environment Bulletin.



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