Aid groups navigate uncertainty ahead of South Sudan unity government deadline

Women in line at a food distribution site in Minkammen, South Sudan. Photo by: Isaac Billy / U.N.

JUBA, South Sudan — There is just one week until South Sudan’s warring parties are expected to form a coalition government, part of a power-sharing deal signed more than a year ago to end the country’s five-year civil war that has killed nearly 400,000 people.

Fighting has largely subsided across the country, but key elements of the agreement have yet to be implemented, including security arrangements and defining the number of states.

In September, during a visit to the capital of Juba, opposition leader Riek Machar called for a monthslong extension, warning the country would return to war if the government was formed on Nov. 12 as planned. “The cease-fire we’ve been enjoying for over a year will erupt,” he said.

“The peace agreement still remains largely unimplemented, leaving most contentious issues unaddressed, issues which have the potential to spark further instability.”

— Jeremy Taylor, East Africa analyst, Norwegian Refugee Council

But the U.N. Security Council, which was visiting at the time and met with Machar, stands behind the November deadline. Nothing is insurmountable, said Jerry Matthews Matjila, South Africa’s ambassador to the U.N.

Taking a similar stance, last month the U.S. said it will reevaluate its relationship with South Sudan if a government isn’t formed in November.

As the deadline looms, aid groups caution the international community not to mistake a period of calm for lasting peace.

“Despite another milestone approaching, the peace agreement still remains largely unimplemented, leaving most contentious issues unaddressed, issues which have the potential to spark further instability,” said Jeremy Taylor, East Africa analyst at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In addition to the political uncertainty, the humanitarian situation remains dire. More than 7 million people are in need of aid, 194,000 people still shelter in six U.N. protected sites across the country, and 6.3 million people are facing hunger. Aid groups need to balance responding to the ongoing crisis with retaining capacity to react to a potential deterioration in the political context, Taylor said.

Ongoing uncertainty

It’s possible that security will increase in Juba around the formation of the unity government, which may impact the movement of people and supplies, said Geoff Andrews, South Sudan country director for international nonprofit Medair.

“We pre-position essential medicines and nutrition supplies for all of our clinics. At any time, we have a three-month buffer stock on hand, so we are not anticipating any interruptions in service delivery,” he said.

But next week’s unpredictability isn’t the main worry. “The primary concern of aid groups relates more to the general environment of uncertainty and the hope that the trajectory of reduced conflict can be sustained than [to] the details of how exactly the political process unfolds,” said NRC’s Taylor.

The failed 2016 peace agreement, which saw Machar flee the country on foot, is a reminder that botched political processes in South Sudan have very real implications for people who will bear the brunt of more conflict, he said.

While there is considerable uncertainty around political developments, it should be remembered that this uncertainty has largely been in place for the past year, Taylor said.

The challenge for aid agencies, therefore, is to avoid complacency by staying alert to contextual developments and the potential humanitarian impact, while remaining focused on the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Organizations should retain sufficient programming flexibility and capacity to respond to any sudden changes in context, Taylor said.

For most people in South Sudan, the ongoing ambiguity of an unrealized peace and the dire humanitarian situation mean people are reluctant to return to their homes. It’s unlikely that the broader trajectory of governance priorities will improve after November, Taylor said. Aid agencies will continue to struggle with the decades-old question of balancing the imperative to respond to obvious needs, while at the same time encouraging the government to shoulder greater responsibility in providing services to their people, Taylor added.

The uncertainty about whether people can return home could also affect next year’s planting season, said Medair’s Andrews. “In order to build a tukul [house] and prepare the ground for the next planting season, they’ll need to move within the next couple of months.”

Normally, families try to harvest enough in October to feed themselves for 12 months and have enough to sell to pay for other expenses such as health care, clothes, and seeds for the next planting season. No harvest means more hungry people, more malnourished children, more dependence on food aid, and more poverty, Andrews said.

There are countless lessons that individual agencies can learn from their own experiences of the failed peace deal in 2015, Taylor told Devex. Yet there are also broad lessons around the expansion of the conflict into the Equatorias region — where few humanitarian agencies had a presence — the accompanying lack of contingency planning around where people will be displaced, and the new access challenges that emerged from a conflict with fragmented front lines and multiple armed groups.

“I would suggest as a minimum retaining sufficient capacity to mobilize fast. In addition, recognize that parallel to the uncertain ‘main’ political processes, the conflict dynamics in the country remain fluid,” Taylor said.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.