Martha Nyanguour, who lost her husband, son, and granddaughter in a hail of gunfire in September, was unable to give them a proper burial due to time constraints. Instead, she paid homage to them by scattering blades of grass over their corpses before hastily departing with her surviving children.
After summoning the courage to return to South Sudan and put her faith in the country’s fragile peace agreement that had ended a long and devastating civil war, Martha Nyanguour’s hopes were soon dashed. Just weeks after arriving in Atar town, located in the Upper Nile state, armed conflicts broke out between militias supporting both government and opposition forces.
Seated beneath a tree in Kowach village in Canal Pigi county, where she now resides alongside thousands of other displaced individuals, Martha Nyanguour expressed her disappointment with a heavy heart, saying, “I believed that I could return to my homeland in peace. I had hope for a peaceful future. However, with the persistent sound of gunfire every day, I fear that South Sudan will remain in a constant state of war.” Her village, located five days’ treacherous walk through swampland, currently lies beyond her reach.
South Sudan is set to hold its first presidential election in 18 months, which marks the culmination of the peace accord that was signed almost five years ago to end a brutal civil war and prevent further deaths that had claimed the lives of approximately 400,000 people. Despite a reduction in large-scale armed conflicts, violence continues in some parts of the country, resulting in the deaths of roughly 2,240 individuals last year, as reported by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Earlier this month, inter-communal clashes broke out in a United Nations protection camp in northern South Sudan, leading to the deaths of at least 20 people and injury to over 50 others.
The implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan has been somewhat lackluster, as many of its core provisions are yet to be fulfilled. Most notably, the presidential elections, which were initially scheduled for this year, have now been delayed until December 2024. Additionally, various other crucial aspects of the treaty have not been put into action, resulting in widespread anxiety that the nation may fall back into violent conflict rather than successfully transitioning into a peaceful transfer of power.
According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of a prominent local advocacy group, Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, “we are preparing for the electoral process without satisfying the necessary prerequisites that establish a favorable atmosphere for holding elections.” He further added that “it is far more probable that the country will witness a resurgence of violence, rather than securing stability.”
Despite the significant progress made in the peace accords, there are some key areas where implementation has been slow. For instance, a permanent constitution has yet to be drafted, and a nationwide census has yet to be carried out. Security arrangements, regarded as the foundation of the agreement, are only partly finished. As per the terms of the treaty, nearly 83,000 troops from both government and opposition forces are required to merge into a single national armed force. However, only 55,000 soldiers have completed their training and are yet to be deployed.
Many soldiers who are involved in the security apparatus of the peace deal are struggling with the subpar conditions in their training centers, where food is often scarce, and they receive inadequate support. According to some soldiers’ testimony, they are rarely paid their wages for their services. Additionally, locals associated with the security agreements have revealed that there is limited faith and trust in the process, resulting in the main parties holding significant fighters back and instead sending inexperienced or newly trained recruits to represent them.
Joshua Craze, a South Sudan researcher, expressed his opinion that “since the signing of the peace deal in 2018, the government has used it as a tool to create division among the opposition, with the aim of inducing defections and pitting commanders against one another.” According to him, this has resulted in escalating violence and conflict in the country.
The opposition accuses the government of lacking political will to hold elections so it can keep plundering the nation’s resources, which include oil. “They don’t have genuine political will to implement the peace agreement because they look at the agreement from the angle that it is crippling their powers,” said Puok Both Baluang, acting press secretary for the first vice president, head of the main opposition and former rebel leader Riek Machar.
Despite having billions of dollars in its fiscal reserves, South Sudan lacks transparency in terms of tracking the movement of its funds. The nation was ranked as the second most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International in the preceding year.
The absence of progress with regards to implementing the peace deal has invited the exasperation of the international community. Representatives of the United Nations, including Nicholas Haysom, have cautioned that the present conditions in South Sudan are insufficient for holding credible, transparent, and impartial elections. However, some diplomats are apprehensive that announcing a further extension to the peace agreement would convey a pessimistic message to both the citizens of South Sudan and potential investors and international aid donors.
The South Sudanese government has stated that it is committed to the peace process and remains dedicated to organizing free, fair, and transparent elections on the scheduled date. In a recent reconciliation and healing conference held in May, President Salva Kiir affirmed his promise never to subject the people of South Sudan to another brutal war, saying, “I will never take South Sudan and its people to war again.”
The capital city of Juba appears calm with billboards featuring images of President Salva Kiir and ex-rebel leader Riek Machar embracing above slogans promoting peace, unity, reconciliation, and development lining the streets. Some members of the political elite are returning with newfound wealth and income, transforming the city with trendy eateries and lavish constructions. However, the scenario beyond the capital is starkly different.
The outbreak of clashes that resulted in the deaths of Nyanguour’s family and numerous others also triggered a mass exodus of tens of thousands of individuals, marking the highest levels of displacement since the peace deal’s signing as per a report by a panel of experts from the United Nations. According to the report, both government and opposition forces played enabling roles in the violence.
The ongoing conflict in Upper Nile had significantly affected the availability of essential healthcare services in the region, leading to severe suffering among the local population. According to aid workers, numerous individuals with severe wounds are compelled to voyage by canoe for up to four days to seek the nearest medical facility, which is incredibly tedious and perilous. Kudumreng David, a supervisor for the International Medical Corps in Kowach, emphasized that the largest issue has been with accessibility as it is challenging for medical personnel to transport lifesaving supplies to the area.
The situation in South Sudan outside of Juba has extensively deteriorated, and access to food supplies has become increasingly scarce. Years of devastating floods coupled with cuts in international food aid have worsened the crisis significantly. In Kowach, for example, children are reduced to foraging for leaves to cook as their only source of nourishment for the day.
Additionally, many inhabitants of rural areas outside the capital remain oblivious to the scheduled elections next year, and the absence of law and order in the region has left them feeling vulnerable and intimidated.
As per Roda Awel, a Kowach resident, “Although we have heard of a peace agreement, it’s yet to be seen in our vicinity, and people remain terrified.”