South Sudan’s peace talks in Addis Ababa descended into outright farce yesterday as the rebels disowned an agreement that regional mediators had announced just hours earlier and that Ban Ki Moon had publicly welcomed.
A furious rebel chief negotiator denied ever having signed the agreement while, back home, “rebel” forces – more on those scare-quotes below – registered their views on the deal by shooting down a UN cargo helicopter outside the benighted town of Bentiu, killing three of its four crew members.
It was a day to cement the Addis Ababa Peace Process’s reputation as a bit of a joke. But South Sudan is in no mood for jokes. The country’s facing total state implosion, absolute lawlesness and an unprecedented famine. A country in as much trouble as South Sudan really can’t afford a botched peace process, but that’s what it’s getting.
One problem is that the talks led by regional block IGAD are technically a “mediation” rather than a facilitation. That means IGAD diplomats take an active role in proposing a settlement and pushing the parties to adopt it, rather than merely bringing them together.
That sounds ok until you realize a leading IGAD member, Uganda, has thousands of its soldiers stationed in South Sudan and actively sides with one of the warring parties – the government. Is it any wonder then that the rebel side perceives the mediator as openly aligned with the government side?
But more is wrong with this peace process than IGAD’s lack of credibility as a neutral broker.
For one thing, IGAD has chosen a broadly inclusive “multi-stakeholder roundtable” approach to the negotiations. That sounds nice. In practice, though, it means that all kinds of groups that don’t actually command any of the men fighting have a seat around the table: women’s groups and church groups and civil society groups and former detainees and any number of other “stakeholders” who don’t have the authority to call off the violence because they’re not really active participants in the war.
The result has been a sprawling, unwieldy, bureaucratized gab fest with lots of grandstanding, lots of formal position papers, lots of pious statements meant for the microphones, and really none of the down-and-dirty bargaining and horse-trading between warring parties that might lead to a real political settlement. It’s no wonder the talks keep spinning their wheels or reaching deals that never have any purchase on the ground.
But it’s not just that some of the people around the table don’t belong there, it’s that some players now actively controlling territory on the ground aren’t properly represented at all.
Remember that UN chopper shot down by “rebel” forces? The reason we needed those scare quotes is that the likely culprit here is Peter Gadet. Gadet is a notorious Nuer warlord with a genuinely ghoulish reputation for vicious, sociopathic violence, but also as an able field commander. He spent most of the 1983-2005 civil war fighting on the side of the arabs, for one thing, and switched sides again and again during that war.
Gadet is undoubtedly fighting against the government in Juba this time around, which is why he’s usually glossed as a “rebel leader” in press accounts. But don’t fall into the trap of interpreting that to mean Gadet is part of a unified rebel chain of command. He’s not.
The guy is basically a free agent, fighting against the government and broadly allied with notional rebel leader Riek Machar, but certainly not answering to him or, banish the thought, taking orders from him.
The rumour I’ve heard is that Gadet hasn’t even met with Machar once since the current war started, even though his forces now control large swathes of territory in the strategically crucial, oil rich Unity State.
Now, the fiction in Addis is that Riek’s negotiators “speak for” Gadet too. But you can’t find anyone in South Sudan who actually believes that, including, incidentally, President Salva Kiir, who has repeatedly criticized the lack of a unified rebel chain of command in public statements recently.
Whether Riek’s negotiators did or did not initially sign the “matrix” agreement in Addis yesterday we may never know. Whether Gadet ordered that UN chopper shot down specifically to scupper the agreement or not is something else we’ll probably never know.
What’s clear is that the thing happening in Addis Ababa that’s generally referred to in the press as “peace talks” is no such thing. It’s a talking shop where people who don’t have the power to call off the fight make pretty speeches while people who do have the power to call off the fight pay no heed. It produces fine words about inclusivity, accountability and justice while the guys with the guns keep shooting at each other and anyone else who gets in the way. It’s a farce.
There’s been some talk in international circles about cutting off budget support to the South Sudanese government if it doesn’t get serious about peace negotiations. Understandable as the urge to be seen to do something is, this is the wrong target.
Western powers could achieve much more by taking concerted action to end to the farce in Addis and to convene a serious peace process, one that puts all the warring parties and only the warring parties around a table, far away from the microphones, under the leadership of a credible, seasoned, neutral facilitator.
Enough is enough. The time has come for serious, sustained, professional diplomacy to help end the South Sudanese conflict.