In December 2013, violent conflict broke out in South Sudan, the continent’s youngest country which had gained independence only two years earlier. Originally triggered by a political conflict in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) elite, ethnic divisions soon became a defining feature of the new civil war. To date, the conflict has resulted in close to 400,000 excess deaths, nearly two and a half million South Sudanese refugees in the region and nearly two million internally displaced persons.
The first attempted peace accord, the Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), signed in August 2015 and mediated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), collapsed when renewed fighting broke out in the capital Juba in July 2016. This led to the further proliferation of armed groups and political fragmentation. The Revitalized Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed in September 2018, has significantly reduced fighting on the ground. Yet the success of the peace process remains in doubt, as implementation has faced repeated delays, and several armed actors have rejected the agreement. As of October 2019, the parties had yet to form the unity power-sharing government envisaged in the agreement.
From the beginning, local dynamics, too, shaped the agendas of armed actors. The link between local and national conflict dynamics is usually complex. For example, the creation of new administrative boundaries further politicized and exacerbated traditional boundary conflicts. Local conflict revolving around cattle grazing is often linked to elites in Juba. The design of the regional peace process poorly reflects these local-national conflict links. In fact, attempts at conflict resolution at the national level may also fuel new violence, such as through ‘cantonment’ policies incentivise more armed mobilisation by local actors.
The localised conflict dynamics and the difficulties in reaching a national political settlement frequently raise the question of whether and how conflicts can be resolved or mitigated at the local level. Historically, people-to-people processes, particularly the 1999 Wunlit conference, played a critical role in reducing fighting among South Sudanese. In the current conflict, too, non-state actors have forged intra- and inter-communal peace agreements at the local level. The results of such local peace initiatives in the ongoing South Sudan war vary considerably. Systematic analysis of these local peace initiatives – varying widely in context, scope, inclusiveness, and so forth – has also been wanting.
This paper maps five cases of recent local level peace deals in South Sudan between 2014 and 2018 to identify key criteria that strengthen the prospects of successful implementation and sustainability of local peace agreements. Critically, there are no generic formulas to achieve effective sustainable local peace deals. What works is highly contingent on the specific local context. Nonetheless, the set of criteria identified in this paper offers a useful guide for external actors who engage in peace-making efforts at the grassroots.