Three Questions About the African Union Mission in South Sudan

The African Union (AU) announced on July 19 that it will deploy a peacekeeping force to South Sudan, which recently descended into a new round of bloodletting, shortly after celebrating its fifth independence anniversary. 

Violence began two weeks ago, as government and opposition forces clashed in the country’s capital, Juba. At least two hundred people, including two Chinese United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, were killed. A tenuous ceasefire is now in effect.

The latest flare-up denotes the breakdown of an internationally-arbitrated August 2015 peace agreement to end the country’s two-year civil war. Importantly, the peace agreement paved the way for the return of former Vice President Riek Machar, who had been living in exile in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia since President Salva Kiir accused him of plotting a coup in December 2013, even though a top US State Department official for Africa quickly reported that there was no evidence of such an attempt.  

The last two weeks of violence has displaced thousands, many of whom are already in urgent need of humanitarian assistance—certain displaced communities are reportedly facing a cholera outbreak. Adding to the concern are reports about a proliferation of military checkpoints—set up to extort money and valuables from fleeing civilians—and ambushes near the country’s borders.

In the wake of the AU’s announcement, three questions about the proposed peacekeeping mission emerge:

1.      How many troops will deploy, and how quickly?

The AU announced that the peacekeeping force will include troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Sudan. All of these countries except for Rwanda are members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—the east African regional organization tasked with mediating the South Sudanese conflict.

A new AU mission would bolster and expand upon the existing twelve-thousand UN troops already operating in South Sudan through the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), deployed in 2011 following the country’s secession from Sudan. The UN force has thus far been unable to stem the violence, so the AU has proposed a more robust and offensive mandate in defining its regional force.

The proposed donor countries will face constraints on the number of troops they are able to deploy: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda have already committed more than three-thousand troops each to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM); Ethiopia has more than eight-thousand troops deployed in UN missions in Sudan and South Sudan; and Rwanda has more than five-thousand soldiers committed to missions in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

To effectively patrol a country approximately the size of the US state of Texas, the AU would need to authorize a significant military force in South Sudan. In comparison, twenty-two-thousand troops make up AMISOM, even though these forces are predominately engaged in a smaller area. The exact number of troops necessary to impose peace amid warring factions will have to be ironed out in coming weeks and months.

It is unclear whether South Sudan’s neighbors can be honest brokers in the conflict, since nearly all of the proposed troop contributing countries have divergent agendas in South Sudan. Shortly after the outbreak of civil war in December of 2013, Ugandan troops entered South Sudan to support Kiir’s forces; a mass kidnapping and cattle raid in April of 2016 carried out by South Sudanese raiders into Ethiopian territory inflamed ethnic tensions between the two neighbors and spurred rumors that the militiamen were armed by Kiir; and a number of outstanding political, financial, and security issues remain unresolved with Sudan. The post-secession relationship between Sudan and South Sudan following two decades of war has been defined by the inability to demarcate the oil-producing border regions between both countries and to eliminate safe havens for a smattering of rebel groups that contribute to the region’s overall destabilization.

Lastly, there is the question of timing. The transfer of troops, weapons, equipment, supplies, and support personnel could take months to position in South Sudan—at best. The country is in the middle of its months-long rainy season, which will paralyze troop movements and logistics deployments until the fall. In the meantime, expatriates, expecting the worst, are evacuating the country, and reports of looting, sexual violence, hunger, and cholera are spreading. A shaky ceasefire stands between two heavily armed groups based in Juba.

2.      What is the peacekeeping force’s mandate?

The AU force will not be the first attempt to quell the violence in South Sudan. Even so, UNMISS has been beset by allegations that its troops have failed to protect civilians, despite a clear mandate to do so. The UN dismissed some of its mission staff after what Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, called a “glaring failure” to protect the tens of thousands of civilians sheltering at a UN base in Malakal when it came under attack in February. Similar accusations followed the most recent flare-up.  

Like its counterpart in Somalia, an AU mission in South Sudan could be authorized with a more robust mandate than the current UN force. The mission could be allowed to more actively engage in combat operations, particularly in a context in which there is “no peace to keep.” The UN has signaled its initial support for a more muscular operation and is currently awaiting Security Council approval.

Irrespective of its effectiveness, a peacekeeping force in South Sudan can impose peace militarily, but it cannot facilitate a long-term solution to the crisis, which is fundamentally rooted in political divides. Diplomatic and political pressure, including the specter of implementing an arms embargo and additional, targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for violence, must continue from the international community.

3.      Who will pay for it?

While the AU’s announcement may be a relief for beleaguered civilians in South Sudan, who will foot the bill for the peacekeeping operation?

The 27th AU Summit ended Monday in Kigali, Rwanda. Among other declarations, the Summit announced a new funding scheme—a 0.2 percent tax on each member’s eligible imports—to support AU programs. The scheme will begin next year and is estimated to raise $1.2 billion in its first year.

The announcement comes as a welcome change to international donors, who finance the bulk of the regional body’s annual operating budget and nearly all of the AU’s $750 million peacekeeping budget. However, even in ideal circumstances, the AU will not realistically be able to finance a new peacekeeping mission on its own; the UNMISS force of twelve-thousand peacekeepers requires more than $1 billion a year to run.

Donor appetites for funding expensive international peacekeeping missions are waning; enthusiasm from the US and the European Union toward funding a mission in South Sudan—particularly after high-profile funding cuts to the AMISOM—is unclear. As a result, the efficacy and sustainability of the proposed South Sudan mission will rely heavily on sufficient and reliable funding.

Next steps

The AU’s proposal is a needed contribution to ending one of the continent’s most destabilizing conflicts. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signaled his support for the proposal on July 16, though it remains to be seen whether South Sudan’s government will accept the move. Now, the UN Security Council will take up the issue, and will potentially respond to calls from Security Council members to implement an arms embargo on South Sudan.

Kelsey Lilley is an associate director with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow her on Twitter @KelseyDegen.

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Image: Ugandan soldiers ride atop a military truck on July 14 as they head out to evacuate Ugandan citizens from Nimule town along the South Sudan-Uganda border. Many countries have evacuated their citizens from South Sudan after fighting recently erupted between troops loyal to South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and his vice president, Riek Machar, in the capital Juba. (Reuters/Anthony Nambwaya)