The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

Two days ago, after much wrangling, South Sudan President Salva Kiir — he's the one who famously wears that black cowboy hat President George W. Bush once gave him — finally signed a peace deal with his Vice President Riek Machar.

A bit of background: South Sudan is the world's newest nation and one of the poorest. Historically underdeveloped since British colonial times, it spent half a century fighting for independence from Sudan, and finally got it in 2011. In December 2013, a rivalry between Kiir and Machar spiraled into an ethnic civil war that's been going on ever since.

The conflict has been predictably awful for civilians, displacing 1.6 million of them. South Sudan's neighbors, Western donors, and the United Nations have been urging an end to hostilities since they began. Yesterday's deal isn't the first deal to end hostilities, it's at least the ninth. The previous eight fell apart within days, sometimes hours, and this one will almost certainly go the same way... possibly in the time it would take you to read the full text of it (72 pages) ... or even before I finish writing this.

So why aren't these peace deals working? Two reasons, both applicable to such agreements in general:


1. Outsiders can't want peace more than the parties do.

The South's neighbors have taken on hundreds of thousands of refugees. Americans and Europeans are fed up with funding the adventures of venal and narrow-minded leaders. The credibility of UN peacekeepers suffers every month this goes on. So everyone wants this war to end... except the parties, who have clearly been dragged kicking and screaming to peace

Signing the agreement Wednesday, Kiir said he felt the peace deal had been imposed on him and said it is flawed. Kiir said some aspects of the deal “are not in the interest of just and lasting peace. ... We had only one of the two options, the option of an imposed peace or the option of a continued war ... We are here talking about peace.”

Does that sounds like an enthusiastic statesman to you? Neither he, nor Machar, have held back on social media either.

When outside actors want peace more than the parties, the parties can exploit that desire to win concessions and commitments, but since the fundamental underlying issues between the parties have not been solved, they'll go back to war almost as soon as it suits them. This is not because they're inherently evil: they fight because they don't trust each other, think they can gain by fighting, and think they will lose by not doing so.

It's hard for international actors to provide the necessary guarantees to change that mindset. Neighbors, donors, and U.N. officials can play a useful role as mediators when the parties are exhausted by fighting but lack the trust to implement a deal themselves. But we're not there yet: both sides still clearly want to fight. In peacemaking, the old saying is arguably inverted: you can get the horse to drink only when it's made its way to the water on its own.


2. Spoilers.

Even if the parties wanted to agree, they're not united. Several generals for Machar have broken away and refused to accept the agreement. Their intransigence will likely give Kiir, who visibly dislikes the deal, reason to violate it. That will force Machar to react, and he's already rhetorically laying the groundwork for doing so:

While rebel and opposition leader Riek Machar is happy that Kiir signed the compromise agreement, the long list of reservations cited by Kiir signals “a lack of commitment,” said James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for Machar. “(Machar) thinks these are unnecessary and he says these were discussed during the mediation ... so there is no need to bring them up again,” Dak told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.

Moreover, a bad peace deal can do more harm than good by giving the parties time to plot something even more sinister. The 1993 Arusha Accords in Rwanda were a classic example. Ill-conceived and indifferently enforced, they gave the political space, time, and incentive for Hutu Power to prepare the 1994 genocide. It would be tragic if something similar happened here.

When the parties don't want a deal, and can't unite enough to enforce it, a deal is unlikely to last. That doesn't mean international actors shouldn't try, but they should not seek an agreement purely for its own sake.


After the deal fails

The only reason this deal happened was because the parties were threatened with targeted sanctions and an arms embargo. Once the deal fails, those punishments will be back on the table at the United Nations Security Council.

  • Arms embargoes, especially on small arms and light weapons, are notoriously difficult to enforce, particularly in this region, but they still represent an annoyance and a stain on the credibility of a government that gets, and needs, a lot of foreign goodwill and aid.
  • Targeted bans, usually useless — does Omar al-Bashir really care that he can't visit the French Riviera? — may bother this particular crop of senior leaders more than most, since they've earned a reputation for being "slow talkers and hard drinkers" and for lavish spending in swank hotels.

Only when the conflict dynamics change, or when continued fighting does the political leadership more harm than good, will South Sudan have a stable peace.