The Responsibility of an Inactive African Union in South Sudan

by Celia Garrett
In this photo taken Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, left, shakes hands with rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar, right, as Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, center, looks on after signing an agreement at the end of talks in Arusha, Tanzania. South Sudan’s warring factions have agreed to reunify their political party, a conflict resolution organization said Thursday, with South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signing the agreement to unite the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement on Wednesday in the Tanzanian town of Arusha, according to the Conflict Management Initiative. (AP Photo)

The 2015 peace accord outlined the African Union’s (AU) responsibility to establish a legal accountability mechanism to target those with the greatest responsibility for brutal human rights violations in South Sudan. However, the AU has been noticeably absent in South Sudan. A year later, the AU has yet to take preliminary steps to develop a hybrid tribunal. The AU has not even begun determining the statute, rules of procedure, location, or even personnel of the court. The AU, along with the regional body IGAD, possesses the power to hold violators accountable and facilitate governmental change, however both have failed to assist any transition within South Sudan. Their passive acceptance of Kiir’s regime caused many South Sudanese to lose faith in an African solution and instead look to the international community for help.

With a corrupt government bent on retaining power, a civil war now resembling “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” and the country facing famine according to the UN, South Sudan cannot save itself. The South Sudanese suffer while they wait for their country to be saved from itself. The violence currently tearing apart the country resulted from a political and socio-economic system destined to fail. South Sudan has never had an election. Kiir was elected vice president of Sudan – never president of South Sudan. Mahmood Mamdani, a member of the AU Commission of Inquiry investing fighting in 2013, explains how the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that created the state and government of South Sudan “was premised on a militarist assumption that only those who waged war should determine the terms of the peace.”
The international community, notably the US, encouraged the creation of the new state. This assured and unconditional support South Sudan received (the international community believing a South Sudan state solved intense conflict in Sudan) led South Sudanese rulers to act with impunity. Military leaders such as Kiir now running the country have never been interested in reform and now remain incapable of transforming the country. Leaders must accept the need for external intervention to facilitate a second transition if peace is to come in South Sudan.
Mamdani claims the AU is the only body with the political credibility to take charge of such a process. Experts have claimed such an intervention “will only succeed if it speaks to the concerns and aspirations of the South Sudanese people who are tired of living under the yoke of political and military leaders with little interest in the well-being of the people.” Led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the AU’s High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan spent the past decade engaging different groups in North and South Sudan on questions of reform. As Smail Chergui, the AU Peace and Security Commissioner, said at the AU summit in Kigali, “the UN doesn’t have the mandate to impose peace.” The best hope for productive change and potential peace rests with the AU. However, consistent with their passive approach to engage with South Sudan in recent years, the AU historically talks of aggressive goals yet struggles to rein in problematic leaders.

FILE – In this Thursday, July 9, 2015 file photo, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, left, accompanied by army chief of staff Paul Malong, right, waves during an independence day ceremony in the capital Juba, South Sudan. A confidential U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016 says South Sudan’s deadly fighting in July was directed by the highest levels of government, and that leaders are intent on a military solution that worsens ethnic tensions. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin, File)

Many have proposed the establishment of an AU trusteeship. The AU would oversee an inclusive political process based on democratic reform: consult civic and political groups excluded the first time and build an efficiency political and institutional foundation. South Sudan never established a political process that legitimates a sovereign power (refuting arguments to refrain from intervention to respect their sovereign opposition to international forces). Therefore, no administrative, technical or legal infrastructure exists to challenge the government from within the country except through the violent rebel forces intensifying the civil war and increasing human rights violations.

David Pressman, an American ambassador at the UN, criticized the South Sudanese government for impeding the UN Mission in South Sudan’s ability to operate. “Until the leaders of South Sudan are willing to put what is good for their people before themselves — putting peace ahead of personal ambition and power — and until they show the will to find a political solution to this grinding conflict, the people of South Sudan will continue to suffer from the bloodshed and instability their leaders wreak.” After so many years of violent civil war and repeated human rights abuses, it is clear President Kiir and his leadership are incapable of doing so.

James Hakim, a young government worker, doesn’t “think this people (African leaders) will save us, they are the part of the problem we face, but when it comes to solution they cannot do it.” David Jok, a resident of Juba, echoed this sentiment in saying he has “no hope in Africa, it’s the same Africa of yesterday, we should not expect much from this continent, but we appreciate the others (European) support and intervention.” However, recent statements by the exiled former Vice President and rebel leader Reik Machar towards the AU suggest a growing recognition of the need for a more active AU role. Machar urged newly elected AU leadership to “give more attention to the resolution of the renewed conflict in South Sudan,” agreeing to “cooperate with your office.” Machar speaks for all the people of South Sudan in saying “we want peace in South Sudan.”