News that a holdout faction in the South Sudanese war has been included in the Rome talks mediated by the Community of Sant’Egidio represents a positive step toward peace in South Sudan, although much more remains to be done.
At the talks this week, the SSOMA faction, led by Pagan Amum and Paul Malong, became a signatory to the ceasefire monitoring process and security arrangements. Missing from the discussions, however, was the National Salvation Front (NAS). NAS pulled out of the Rome peace process in November last year to protest government attacks on its forces in Central Equatoria despite a signed ceasefire between both parties. NAS also protested the targeted killing of one of its commanders in Uganda by alleged government operatives. Mediators have said discussions are ongoing to persuade NAS to rejoin the talks.
Progress in the Rome talks has been slowed by COVID-19 and other process delays, and it is unlikely that they will result in a deal before the end of the year. In early July, the government’s chief negotiator requested that this round of talks to be delayed by several days because of a trip he was scheduled to take to Kenya and his involvement in South Sudan’s Independence Day celebrations on July 10.
There are also important political reasons behind the slow progress. The formation of a government of national unity between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) is deflecting the international community’s attention from ramping up pressure on the parties in the Rome talks to sign an agreement quickly. Meanwhile, the holdout rebel groups in the Rome talks do not pose a lethal military threat to the government. Except for the NAS, these groups do not have armies on the ground, and so the government does not feel pressured to reach a deal.
Nevertheless, it may be in the interest of the holdout groups to reach a deal soon because of their weakened position relative to the government. The longer it takes to reach an agreement, the more opportunity is created for fragmentation within their ranks. And the government is not wasting time in sowing discord among the ranks of the holdout groups. It is working hard to convince leaders from these groups to defect to the government. Two senior members of Malong’s faction, for example, have joined the government in recent months.
Nevertheless, at this critical juncture, the international community should not relent in pressuring all sides, especially the government, to reach a deal quickly. The conflict dynamics on the ground continue to worsen by the day, putting the lives of civilians in danger and creating food shortages in the short and long term. Equally concerning is the fact that further delays prolong the process of achieving justice and reconciliation. With the fate of the proposed hybrid court up in the air, the international community should pressure the government of South Sudan and the African Union to operationalize it quickly. More broadly, the international community should also pressure the government to implement the pending aspects of the revitalized peace agreement so that a holistic peace can take hold.