By Allison Fedirka
The long road to peace in South Sudan may have just gotten a little shorter. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar have agreed to a framework for a peace deal to end the country’s five-year civil war. The most notable thing about this agreement, however, is the pivotal role Ethiopia played in brokering it. It suggests Ethiopia is prepared to be more assertive than it has been in the past, which could shift the balance of power in the region.
The peace deal, dubbed the Khartoum Declaration, includes a permanent cease-fire set to start June 30. It also calls for disengagement, troop withdrawals, opening of borders for humanitarian efforts, and the release of political detainees and prisoners of war. The timing of the agreement is directly related to looming U.S.-led U.N. sanctions against South Sudan that were set to start if the conflict didn’t end by June 30.
South Sudan had tried and failed for years to come to a compromise. For example, in August 2015, it reached a similar peace agreement that was also meant to help the country avoid U.N. sanctions. That deal ultimately failed because the two sides were unable to honor the conditions, and by July 2016, fighting erupted again. Internal attempts were also made in 2017 to end the conflict but to no avail.
The 2015 agreement was partly brokered by Ethiopia, which was itself plagued by unrest and locked in a state of emergency for most of 2016, forcing Addis Ababa to focus on domestic affairs when fighting resumed in South Sudan that year. But some key developments in late 2017 and early 2018 enabled the country to become more active in the South Sudan peace process. First, Addis Ababa managed to tamp down its own domestic unrest, and after much political wrangling, its embattled prime minister resigned in February. At the same time, the U.S. announced that time was running out for South Sudan and that it needed to reach a peace deal or face sanctions.
Ethiopia has been working behind the scenes to broker a peace deal since last December, when the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country African trade bloc, launched the High-Level Revitalization Forum in Addis Ababa aimed at ending the civil war. Ethiopia led a second round of talks in February 2018 and a third round in late May.
In addition, Kiir visited Addis Ababa on May 30 to appeal to Ethiopia to reject the U.S.-led efforts to pass a U.N. resolution calling for sanctions against his country. As a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Ethiopia abstained from voting on the resolution, which was passed nonetheless. Immediately after the vote, Ethiopia hosted both Kiir and Machar in Addis Ababa to resume peace talks, which culminated in the deal reached on Wednesday.
Ethiopia’s involvement was motivated by security as well as economic concerns. It not only wanted to stop South Sudanese combatants and refugees from fleeing across the border into Ethiopia (and Somalia), but it also wanted access to South Sudan’s oil. Addis Ababa expressed interest in buying South Sudanese oil and helping build roadways and infrastructure to transport the oil out of the country.
Though the declaration is signed, a number of questions remain. The agreement doesn’t address some key issues, including how many states South Sudan will have, the possible unification of the army with the rebel fighters and how power will be divided between the parties. If past results tell us anything, there is no guarantee this agreement will hold. But Addis Ababa’s role in brokering the deal does reveal that Ethiopia is emerging as a regional leader in East Africa and a more assertive geopolitical player in the region.