IS THAT a light at the end of the tunnel? Since South Sudan’s war began nearly five years ago, tens of thousands have died and more than 4m—one in three South Sudanese—have been forced from their homes. The country teeters, for the second year running, on the brink of famine; more than half the population do not have enough to eat. At least nine ceasefires have been struck, none lasting longer than a month, including the latest, which was signed on June 30th and has already been violated. Observers have warned repeatedly of genocide. Yet tentative signs offer hope that the world may act to stop the bloodshed.
On July 13th the UN slapped an arms embargo on the world’s youngest nation, in the hope of stopping atrocities against civilians. Under the resolution all countries are barred from supplying arms until May 2019, following in the footsteps of America, which imposed its own embargo in February, and the European Union, which has barred weapons sales to Sudan since 1994 (this was extended to the newly independent south in 2011). The American-led UN resolution also imposes a travel-ban and asset-freeze on South Sudan’s deputy defence chief for logistics, Malek Reuben Riak Rengu, and former chief of the Sudan People’s
Liberation Army (SPLA), Paul Malong Awan.
The vote comes as a surprise to those familiar with the UN’s dithering. An attempt in 2016 foundered after America failed to convince China (which has a large stake in South Sudan’s oilfields), Russia and even its close ally Japan to back the proposal. This time, Ethiopia was on the security council, which might have made the chances of success even slimmer. Along with two of South Sudan’s other neighbours, Uganda and Sudan, it has argued strongly that further sanctions would scuttle ongoing regional peace talks. As a compromise, America watered down the proposal by dropping the names of three government ministers from the list of targets. On the day of the vote Ethiopia, with Russia, China and three others, merely abstained; Ivory Coast, one of three African countries on the council, was one of nine to vote in favour. “It showed there’s no such thing as a unified African position,” notes one European diplomat.
The question is how much an embargo matters. Most of the violence in South Sudan is inflicted with light weaponry, much of which enters with the help of neighbouring countries and their governments. Two years ago Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, reportedly promised continued support to his longtime ally Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president, in the event of any sanctions. An earlier UN arms embargo on Darfur, a war-ravaged province of western Sudan, was allegedly contravened by China soon after it was implemented in 2005. South Sudan’s government, which reacted fiercely to the vote and claimed it would push the country closer to Russia and China, seems to hope it too can find workarounds. “We will still get whatever we want,” says James Morgan, South Sudan’s ambassador in Ethiopia. “It doesn’t worry us.”
But there are signs that regional power-brokers are also fed up. Since June Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, has been mediating peace talks in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. He is particularly anxious for production to resume in South Sudan’s oilfields and has proposed the creation of a joint force to protect them from rebel attacks. Mr Museveni has also played a more active role. He hosted talks on power-sharing earlier this month. The agreement he is brokering, which is expected to be signed in Nairobi this week, would keep Mr Kiir in place as president, while allowing for the creation of four vice-presidents and potentially a much larger cabinet.
Most importantly, Mr Museveni and Mr Bashir—who backed opposing sides when the war broke out—appear to have succeeded in persuading Riek Machar, Mr Kiir’s former deputy and leader of the opposition, to return from exile in South Africa in order to take up his old job. “It’s a good sign [Museveni and Bashir] are working together,” says Ahmed Adam of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “But the question is whether this is about South Sudan or their own interests.”
Pressure from the international community will on its own not be enough to bring lasting peace. Ahmed Soliman of Chatham House, a think-tank in London, argues the current agreement resembles little more than “an attempt to stick all the pieces back together again”. Key figures, including Mr Malong, the former army chief (turned rebel), are excluded. The South Sudan Opposition Alliance, which consists of nine parties, earlier expressed frustration with the power-sharing proposals. It also denounced a bill to extend the government’s term to 2021, passed unanimously by parliament on July 12th, as “illegal”. Mr Kiir’s mandate is due to expire next month.
Many in Juba, the capital, worry that Mr Machar might return only for war to break out just as it did a few months after he came home in 2016. “What the people want is just peace,” says Rose Lisok Paulino, a local official in Juba. “The fear they have is that this is something that is signed just to buy time.”
© 2018 | The Economist