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The Realities of South Sudan’s Pursuit of a Durable Peace

After decades of civil war and unrest, South Sudan has remained mired in conflict since gaining independence in 2011. The world’s youngest nation has endured immense suffering, with millions displaced, widespread human rights abuses, and a devastating humanitarian crisis. Amid this turmoil and the signing of 12 peace agreements since 2013, the Tumaini Initiative has emerged as a beacon of hope, seeking to navigate the complex challenges and uncertainties that plague South Sudan’s elusive quest for lasting peace.

In February 2023, while visiting Nairobi, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir formally asked Kenyan President William Ruto to assume the responsibility of facilitating the Rome process. Roughly a year and a half later, on May 16, 2024, Tumaini was launched in Nairobi. In attendance at the launch were several heads of state, high-ranking officials, and diplomats from across the globe, to see the announced effort to halt the bloodshed in South Sudan.

South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia
South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. (Richard Juilliart)

William Ruto is shepherding the high-level mediation for South Sudan. Former Army Commander Lazarus Sumbeiywo and Ambassador Mohamed Ali Guyo, a prominent mediator with significant experience in the region, are assisting him. Additionally, Guyo serves as the IGAD Special Envoy to the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Somalia. The name “Tumaini” means hope in Swahili, reflecting the initiative’s core aspiration to instill a renewed sense of optimism in pursuing sustainable peace and stability.

The initiative’s mandate is multifaceted, encompassing various interrelated components with a special focus on implementing existing agreements and addressing issues not covered in the 2018 agreement. The declaration of commitment to the Tumaini Initiative, signed on May 16, aims to reinvigorate the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed in 2018 but plagued by delays and setbacks. The Nairobi Declaration outlines a roadmap for constitutional-centered security arrangements and critical reforms necessary for establishing a stable and inclusive government.

The mediation process brings together representatives of South Sudan’s government, opposition groups, and signatory groups, as well as civil society organizations and stakeholders, including women’s groups, youth groups, and religious leaders. It kicked off with the adoption of the Rules of Procedure, referencing the Rome Declaration on the peace process in South Sudan of January 12, 2020, and the agenda based on the signed Declaration of Principles of March 10, 2021, in Naivasha.

According to the declaration, the Tumaini Initiative seeks to bolster regional and international coordination in supporting South Sudan’s peace process. By fostering synergy among various stakeholders, including IGAD member states, the African Union, the United Nations, Troika, and other international partners, the initiative strives to leverage collective resources and leverage to support the process and guarantee the implementation of its outcome.

UN peacekeeper stationed in South Sudan in 2018
UN peacekeeper stationed in South Sudan in 2018. (Eric Kanalstein/UNMISS)

Furthermore, the initiative emphasizes tackling the fundamental reasons behind the violence, including ethnic tensions, resources, and problems related to governance and accountability. It acknowledges that enduring peace can only be attained by addressing the fundamental causes of violence and instability rather than just controlling the outward signs.

Despite the Tumaini Initiative’s noble intentions and comprehensive approach, its path may be riddled with formidable challenges that underscore the complexities of South Sudan’s conflict landscape.

One of the primary obstacles has been the lack of genuine political will and commitment from the warring parties to fully implement the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. Distrust, power struggles, and competing interests have hampered progress, with each side accusing the other of violations and breaches of the agreement.

Recently, Vice President Riek Machar lodged a complaint with the mediators in Kenya that, according to the Associated Press, “Peace talks in neighboring Kenya have failed to acknowledge the country’s peace agreement established in 2018, alleging a new draft agreement is aimed at replacing the original peace deal. Riek Machar in a protest letter to the talks’ mediator said the draft established alternative institutions to replace or run in parallel with those established by the previous peace agreement. He added that the current peace talks should complement and not obliterate the original deal.” This might lead to mistrust and periodic outbreaks of violence, further eroding confidence in the peace process. The process of political reintegration of key opposition groups into the government is likely, but the government is already bloated.

Another potential speedbump is forthcoming elections. With just seven months remaining before elections, there is evidence indicating inadequate preparedness for holding elections and carrying out essential election-related duties. The National Electoral Commission is still in the process of carrying out several election-related responsibilities, including establishing electoral management bodies at the state level, formulating voter registry and registration procedures, facilitating civic education and voter outreach efforts, and releasing the voter register six months before the elections.

South Sudanese refugees in 2014 escaping the fighting
South Sudanese refugees in 2014 escaping the fighting. (Geoff Pugh)

The review of electoral law and political party registration is still pending. Both technically and politically, the National Election Commission isn’t ready. From my perspective, it is advisable to prolong this deadline to allow for the establishment of state institutions and to provide an opportunity for peace to prevail before engaging in the demanding process of an election.

Moreover, the security situation in South Sudan remains precarious, with continued clashes between government forces and various armed groups and inter-communal violence fueled by disputes over land, resources, and cattle. Persistent inter-communal violence persists in several regions, including Tambura, Twic, and some areas of Abyei. The presence of numerous uncontrolled militia groups has exacerbated insecurity, hindered the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, and obstructed the free movement of people and goods.

The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is also a daunting challenge that threatens to undermine the Tumaini Initiative’s efforts. There are looming floods from June to September in Upper Nile, Jonglei, Unity, Lake State, and Central Equatorial. This is anticipated to lead to widespread displacement, conflict, food insecurity, and limited access to basic services, creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability and instability. Addressing these pressing humanitarian needs while simultaneously pursuing a political solution remains a delicate balancing act. Furthermore, what is coming out of the Nairobi Declaration is a constitutional process. The South Sudanese people won’t accept nor embrace a new constitution being written in Kenya.

Refugee camp in Wau, South Sudan
Refugee camp in Wau, South Sudan, in 2017. (Nektarios Markogiannis/UNMISS)

Despite the myriad challenges, the Tumaini Initiative has achieved modest gains and demonstrated the resilience of the international community’s commitment to peace in South Sudan. One notable achievement has been the signing of the Declaration of the Commitment to the Tumaini (HOPE) Initiative for South Sudan by notable opposition groups like the South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance (SSOMA) led by General Paul Malong Awan and General Pa’gan Amum Okiech, South Sudan United National Alliance (SSUNA), and the National Salvation Front-Revolutionary Command Council led by General Mario Loku Thomas Jada.

The Tumaini Initiative has also succeeded in fostering greater regional and international coordination in support of South Sudan’s peace process. Ambassador Ismail Wais, IGAD Special Envoy to South Sudan, and Tobias Mueller of the Community of Sant’ Egidio are the initiative’s co-mediators. This week, the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, Michael J. Adler, met with the delegations in Nairobi to evaluate the progress of the negotiations.

Perhaps most importantly, the Tumaini Initiative has kept the flame of hope alive. By consistently engaging with all stakeholders, including civil society leaders like Dr. Ayak Chol Deng representing Civil Society Forum and Abraham Akec Awolich of the People’s Coalition for Civil Action, and by advocating for inclusive dialogue, the initiative has prevented the complete collapse of the peace process and maintained a sense of urgency around finding a sustainable solution to South Sudan’s protracted conflict.

South Sudan talksAs South Sudan continues to navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and instability, the Tumaini Initiative’s path forward is fraught with uncertainties and challenges. However, the unwavering commitment to peace and the recognition of the grave consequences of failure offer a glimmer of hope that must be nurtured and sustained.

Moving forward, the initiative must double down on efforts to foster genuine political will and commitment from all parties involved in the conflict. This may involve exploring new incentives, leveraging economic and diplomatic pressures, and engaging in targeted trust and confidence-building measures to bridge the deep-rooted divides between the remaining rebel leaders like General Simon Gatwech and the National Salvation Front led by General Thomas Cirilo Swaka and the South Sudanese government.

Simultaneously, the Tumaini Initiative must prioritize addressing the dire humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Alleviating the suffering of vulnerable populations and creating conditions for their safe and dignified return is not only a moral imperative but also a crucial step toward building a foundation for lasting peace and stability.

Furthermore, the initiative must continue to strengthen regional and international coordination, ensuring a coherent and integrated approach to addressing the multifaceted challenges facing South Sudan. This may involve exploring innovative mechanisms for resource mobilization, information sharing, and joint decision-making.

Crucially, the Tumaini Initiative must remain steadfast in its commitment to inclusive dialogue and a comprehensive approach to conflict resolution to avoid negative peace. Engaging with all stakeholders, including uninvited rebel groups, women’s groups, and marginalized communities, is essential to ensure that the peace process is truly representative and addresses the root causes of the conflict.

The path to peace in South Sudan will be long and arduous, fraught with setbacks and uncertainties. However, the Tumaini Initiative should unwaveringly focus on the constitution-making process, security sector reforms, justice, economic and social, and truth and confidence-building measures. A new robust High-Level Trust and Confidence Panel headed by the Kenyan government and supported by regional and international actors led by the U.S. government is required to push and deliver an agreement. Also, the South Sudan government should foster genuine political will, address hold-out groups’ concerns, strengthen regional and international coordination, and prioritize inclusive dialogue. With this, the Tumaini Initiative can navigate the complex landscape and contribute to the realization of a lasting peace by addressing long-term challenges and prioritizing the needs of the general population.