President of South Sudan Salva Kiir. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP
President of South Sudan Salva Kiir. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

By easing access to basic services, schools and farms, and allowing civilians to travel once again between villages and towns, the South Sudan peace deal signed in September 2018 was a much-needed boon for the country’s population, whose lives had been decimated by years of brutal fighting and a man-made humanitarian crisis that claimed up to 400,000 lives.

Almost two years down the line, South Sudan’s leaders have formed a unity government — with critical support from SA — and should be commended for achieving progress towards peace. But the new government, formed in February 2020, remains shaky. Most people displaced by the war have thus far declined to return home for fear that violence could re-erupt. Both sides maintain separate armies despite pledges to unify them. Meanwhile, a ceasefire with other armed groups has broken down in areas of the Equatoria region, in the south of the country, displacing thousands more South Sudanese.

When the 15 members of the UN Security Council vote on Friday on renewing the arms embargo that will expire this weekend, they should acknowledge South Sudan’s progress on the difficult path towards peace. But they should not reward the unity government by committing to remove the ban on arms sales to South Sudan, as this would threaten the hard-won gains achieved since 2018. If President Salva Kiir rushes to re-arm his army it would likely spur his rivals to do the same, thereby risking a breakdown in the ceasefire and an ensuing collapse in the peace deal.

Reward for such progress, a policy supported by many African leaders that will likely guide the voting of the three African members of the Security Council, can be done in other, more gradual ways. For example, the council — and SA, which has not yet made its position public on the vote — could first consider easing some of its targeted punitive sanctions on individuals, which it could undertake to do if the government recommits to a nationwide ceasefire to halt the renewed violence in Equatoria.

South Sudan fell into civil war in 2013, just two years after the country gained independence from Sudan, amid power squabbles among its political and ethnic elite over who would serve as its future president. This crude power struggle brutalised its population, displacing 4.3-million people, almost half its population, amid widespread atrocities, including large-scale rape, ethnic massacres and burnt villages.

South Sudan’s current ceasefire took years to mediate, requiring sustained diplomatic efforts by African states, including SA, and international partners. The Security Council should not underestimate the possibility of a return to war. The previous peace deal collapsed just months after the forming of a unity government in 2016. Heavy clashes erupted in Juba between government forces loyal to Kiir and forces answering to rebel leader Riek Machar, forcing the latter to flee to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo on foot. The violence then spread to new areas of the country that had been relatively unaffected by the conflict, including the Equatoria region, widening the war and displacing hundreds of thousands more South Sudanese.

Lifting the arms embargo could prove catastrophic. While the embargo is not perfect — many parties to the conflict smuggle weapons into the country in secret — it can claim credit for incentivising legitimate weapons dealers to stay well clear of South Sudan, or face possible UN sanctions. By contrast, if the embargo is lifted and weapons flood into the country this could lead to a renewed cycle of violence, death and displacement. The risks of escalating violence are particularly acute amid worrying signs of a major Covid-19 outbreak as displaced communities huddle in close quarters within camps, uniquely vulnerable to infection.

South Sudan has made progress towards peace but is not out of the woods yet. The February 2020 formation of the newest unity government, a key landmark in the country's 2018 peace deal, marked the beginning of the three-year transitional period, scheduled to culminate in elections. This vote, when it occurs, is expected to pit Kiir against his longtime rival-turned-peace partner, First Vice-President Riek Machar. Their rivalry is especially tense because both continue to command their own armies, which remain wholly unintegrated despite pledges to bring them together under the peace agreement. Given the parties’ disregard for many provisions in the peace deal, this situation could continue for years to come.

Political tensions between the two rival camps remain high, despite the formation of the national unity government. Most concerning, the parties have failed to agree on how to appoint state and local level officials across the country, leaving an alarming power vacuum outside Juba. The deadlocked and complex power-sharing negotiations at the local level risk creating splintered, localised conflicts. Lifting the arms embargo too soon could make the situation yet more dangerous by easing access to arms and munitions supplies and enabling violence, as local groups vie for power, threatening the overall peace process.

A government offensive, in violation of a negotiated ceasefire with rebels in the southern Equatoria region, is a further reason to keep the arms embargo in place, for now. Renewed fighting since April has displaced thousands and reportedly destroyed numerous villages as government forces launched major offensives into areas controlled by forces loyal to Thomas Cirillo, a former deputy army chief. While Cirillo did not sign the 2018 peace deal, he did agree to a ceasefire this year. Lifting the arms embargo now could fuel an escalation of the conflict rather than encouraging dialogue.

At the start of 2020 SA was instrumental in getting South Sudan’s rival parties to form a national unity government. By helping resolve the difficult issue of the number of states and their boundaries, which had long been a stumbling block of negotiations, Pretoria played a crucial role unblocking the process and keeping the peace agreement alive.

Now SA has another opportunity to help South Sudan down the path towards peace. By supporting the renewal of the Security Council’s arms embargo, the South African government will be taking a further step to preserve Juba’s fragile transition and the hopes of a war-weary population crying out for a final end to the conflict.

• Ero is Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group.