March 5, 2015
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar failed to resolve their differences by the March 5 deadline not only because they lack the political will to do so, but also because the international community lacks the will to make them, says J. Peter Pham, the Atlantic Council’s lead Africa analyst.

Kiir and Machar signed a ceasefire deal in February that was intended to be a step toward a power-sharing agreement.

The two sides faced a March 5 deadline to work out the details of that agreement, which was supposed to pave the way for setting up a transitional government. The deadline passed with no deal.

“The whole agreement was nothing more than kicking the can down the road. Well, we’ve reached the end of the road and now they’re going to try to kick it farther,” Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said in an interview with the New Atlanticist.

“At the end of the day, there is no political will,” he added.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the East African group mediating the talks in Addis Ababa will now force both sides to form a transitional government by July 9.

“To achieve that goal, [Intergovernmental Authority on Development], joined by the friends of South Sudan from Africa and abroad, intends to implement a common plan and table a reasonable and comprehensive solution to end the crisis in South Sudan,” said Desalegn, who is also Chairman of the IGAD.

The international community has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to prod Kiir and Machar to make peace.

“We are well past the point where enough is enough,” US Secretary of State said in a strongly worded statement on March 2. “Leaders must put the interests of their people above their own. The violence must end. A negotiated conclusion to this conflict is required now.”

Kerry’s statement betrayed the Obama administration’s frustration with Kiir and Machar.

“Legitimacy is not a presumed right of any government. It is conferred by the people, and it is sustained only by demonstrating leadership to protect and serve all citizens — responsibilities the government has neglected,” Kerry said.

“The opposition has likewise failed to choose peace or make the hard choices required of leaders,” he added.

Pham said Kerry’s statement provides a “glimmer of hope.”

“He raises the possibility that the United States might take away Salva Kiir’s principal asset — his recognition,” Pham said.

Desalegen accused individuals on both sides of continuing to “beat the drums of war.”

“Leadership is never easy, but continuing a war flagrantly disregards the interests of you, the people,” he said in a message to the people of South Sudan. “It is an abdication of the most sacred duty leaders have to you, their people: to deliver peace, prosperity and stability.”

Machar’s spokesman said Kiir had not been flexible in the negotiations.

“President Salva Kiir is not ready for peace,” the spokesman, James Gatdet Dak, told the Sudan Tribune.

On March 3, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that creates a system to impose sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on those blocking peace in South Sudan.

But Pham called that resolution “toothless.”

Eleven months ago, on April 3, 2014, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order authorizing the sanctioning of individuals who threaten the peace, security, or stability of South Sudan. To date, only four relatively insignificant individuals have been designated under this authority.

An arms embargo would be more effective, but only if South Sudan’s neighbors — particularly Kenya and Uganda — agree to enforce it, said Pham.

The crisis in South Sudan erupted when Kiir dismissed Machar from the post of Vice President in July 2013. Within five months, the situation had escalated into a military crisis, when forces loyal to the President attempted to crush what the government claimed was an attempted coup by Machar.

US officials have repeatedly stated they have no evidence of a coup attempt.

Since then, multiple ceasefire agreements between Kiir and Machar have fallen apart and the two sides have used the lull in fighting to regroup and rearm. The conflict has displaced two million people. Hundreds of children — some as young as 13 — have also been abducted for use by both sides as child soldiers.

Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said the recruitment of child soldiers is a major challenge in South Sudan.

Yet Pham didn’t hold out much hope for a breakthrough in Addis Ababa.

“The government thinks it can wait out and beat the opposition. The opposition thinks it can do the same to the government,” he said.

Pham spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Peace talks between South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, and former Vice President Riek Machar failed to produce any agreement by the March 5 deadline. What happens next?

Pham: The whole agreement was nothing more than kicking the can down the road. Well, we’ve reached the end of the road and now they’re going to try to kick it farther. At the end of the day, there is no political will.

Q: Machar’s side has accused Kiir of being inflexible in the negotiations. What is the main obstacle in the reconciliation effort?

Pham: The main obstacle is the fact that the arms continue to flow and both leaders still think that they can win if they can outlast the other one.

Q: Secretary Kerry's recent statement appeared to betray the Obama administration's frustration with Kiir and Machar. Has this crisis cost Kiir support from the US and what will that mean for him going forward?

Pham: Amid the well-justified cynicism about the international community’s will, there is a glimmer of hope in Secretary Kerry’s comments.

He raises the possibility that the United States might take away Salva Kiir’s principal asset — his recognition. Secretary Kerry rightly makes clear that political legitimacy isn’t a onetime thing gained in an election half a decade ago before South Sudan was even independent. It has to be earned by continued leadership, something woefully lacking in the Juba regime.

Q: Earlier this week the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that would allow it to impose sanctions, including an asset freeze and travel ban, on South Sudanese warring parties. How meaningful is this threat of sanctions?

Pham: The UN Security Council resolution is toothless. All it does is set up a committee, which will identify people who are obstacles to peace and they will subject them to asset freezes and travel bans.

The asset freezes only work if you have assets out of the country. Most of the people who would be affected — and this will only be after an exhaustive investigative process by a committee that hasn’t yet been appointed — do not have assets outside the country.

The UN will set up a committee, they’ll investigate, and maybe, if we’re lucky, six months from now we’ll have some names of people who are accused and their assets might be frozen assuming that they have some assets outside Uganda or Kenya, two countries that have shown no will up to date to impose an consequences on the warring leaders.

Q: Will the threat of sanctions help persuade both sides to resolve their differences, or does it, as the South Sudanese government has said, harm the peace process?

Pham: The government thinks it can wait out and beat the opposition. The opposition thinks it can do the same to the government.

Q: The UN resolution stops short of imposing an arms embargo. Would an arms embargo be a more effective way of managing the conflict, and do you see willingness in the international community to support such a measure?

Pham: It would be more effective, but only if the neighboring countries chose to enforce it.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

RELATED CONTENT