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Erik Solheim Headshot

Fragile Peace Process in South Sudan

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It might be the beginning of the end of the nightmare in South Sudan when Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Brende open a donor conference in Oslo today. For that to happen, we must fund peace keepers, support peace entrepreneurs and ensure that South Sudanese oil revenues support peace.

What started out as a power struggle between the two top leaders in South Sudan has become an ethnic war and humanitarian disaster. One million people are internally displaced, 300,000 forced to flee and tens of thousands killed. The country is on the verge of famine. The donor conference in Oslo is an opportunity to raise funds for humanitarian needs and to support the fragile peace process.

The crisis in South Sudan is a political creation and will require a political solution. It all started when President Salva Kiir dismissed his vice president Riek Machar and other leaders of the ruling party SPLM. The two men once fought together for independence from Sudan. Now they are sworn enemies. The parties recently reached a peace agreement after negotiations in Ethiopia, but it did not take long before fighting resumed. The problem was that the truce was a result of outside pressure. It was made clear during the negotiations that Kiir and Machar would lose all support and probably end up before an international criminal court if an agreement was not reached. The peace deal was not a reflection of reconciliation or a political agreement between the president and his former deputy. The mood between them is ice cold and both of them still think they can benefit from victories on the battlefield.

Such artificial peace processes will always be fragile, but the only alternative is to wait for a military outcome. That would be a long a bloody affair. It was therefore right of the regional powers as represented by Ethiopia and the international community led by the US to push through a peace agreement.

However, a truce engineered by outsiders will require outsiders to enforce it. Peacekeepers will come from Ethiopia and other neighboring countries. These countries are poor and it will not be popular to spend resources helping an oil rich neighbor. It would neither be right to expect that. International donors should not only step up and provide humanitarian assistance, but also fund a regional peacekeeping force with a robust mandate from the UN.

A spiral of ethnic violence was set in motion when president Kiir mobilized his fellow Dinka tribe and Machar rallied his Nuer people. Those now fighting are the same people who celebrated their new-found independence together only three years ago. Why is it so difficult to live together in peace? It happens over and over again. People who have lived in peace for years suddenly go on the attack. One reason is conflict entrepreneurs playing up ethnic and religious divisions for their own benefit. Leaders rallying Christians against Muslims in the Central African Republic, pitting Nuers against Dinkas in South Sudan and inciting hatred between Sunnis and Shias in Syria and Iraq. Development assistance donors must make sure that also peace entrepreneurs are empowered. Most people in South Sudan prefer peace and religious leaders are promoting unity. The two combatants initially refused to shake hands during the peace negotiations and it was a bishop who eventually managed to line them up and make them hold hands during a prayer for peace. Such leaders need our support. Development assistance should support media promoting peace, religious groups preaching reconciliation and civil society groups working across ethnic divides.

Money is not what South Sudan will need the most in the long-term. They have enough oil to finance their own development. But oil can also be a source of conflict. The fiercest fighting has taken place in the oil regions. The military is funded by oil and a few barrels pay for many soldiers. Only those controlling the country and the oil gain access to wealth and power. The international community initially thought vice president Machar would accept his dismissal. Ambassadors and experts did not recognize a political crisis and kept focusing on loan criteria and other peripheral issues. However, powerful people in danger of losing wealth and power rarely give up without a fight.

A lasting solution in South Sudan will require a system in which the oil money supports peace rather than war. Everyone should be able to see exactly how much money is earned and where it goes. People need to be confident that their political opponents is not enriching and arming themselves with the help of oil revenues.

The aid providers must demand a mechanism for open and transparent management of oil income. The EU, China, USA and the regional powers including Sudan will benefit from and support a well-functioning oil industry in South Sudan. Full openness is the key to a political solution and functioning state. It does make any sense to provide development assistance if the money from oil is stolen and used to buy weapons. The donors must be resolute on this point.

The donor conference in Oslo is important to avoid famine and a humanitarian disaster in South Sudan. It can also be beginning of lasting peace. Assistance should be provided to fund a UN force, support local peace entrepreneurs and ensure and open and transparent way of managing oil revenues.