South Sudan President Salva Kiir arrives at the national palace to negotiate with the South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar on June 20, 2018.Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

JUBA, South Sudan—Virtually everything in South Sudan appears rigged in favor of the few. It begins with the economy, with so much oil revenue and so little to show for it. The capital, Juba, has few paved streets and scant signs of development or even basic infrastructure. There is wealth, but unseen, lost to graft, misused to build private armies and buy off potential rivals.

The war, too, belongs to the elites. They are not doing the fighting, and they are not its victims. But they provoke it, manipulating ethnic tensions to mobilize their respective constituents and seek control of land and resources. They are good at sparing their own manpower: Armed groups typically don’t do battle with other armed groups, but instead steal from, rape, and kill ordinary, defenseless civilians. Even peace itself has tended to be the preserve of those at the top. Rather than negotiate on behalf of their constituents, strongmen strike transactional deals to preserve their personal power.

At least peace—or the absence of war—can bring benefits to a broader community. That much became clear after President Salva Kiir and his former vice president but also main rival, Riek Machar, reached a cease-fire deal last September. Their recent decision to extend the deadline to form a transitional unity government rather than pronounce the collapse of their agreement was, for that reason, welcome news. But it also was a clear indication of how tenuous the truce is, and how far off a lasting peace still remains.

The cease-fire agreement between Kiir and Machar suffered from many common defects. It lacks a credible outside guarantor. It didn’t address any of the deeper roots of the conflict. It was a power-sharing affair (Kiir would retain the presidency, while Machar was promised a return to power as vice president) reached between two men who have wrought such damage to their country and who want to exercise power, not share it. It excluded other important armed groups, which, having been shut out of the deal, have had an incentive to grow their ranks while waiting for a slice of the cake. It involves a complex effort to reunify the two men’s armed groups that, because it encourages the sides to inflate the size of their forces, is more likely to be used to recruit new fighters than to demobilize existing ones.

Still, the deal ushered in the first sustained end of hostilities between the two antagonists since the 2013 outbreak of a vicious civil war that killed up to 400,000 people, a mere two years after South Sudan was born amid local and international exuberance. For a people that has experienced unthinkable brutality for decades, first during the war for independence from Sudan and then during the war within the new breakaway country, the reprieve from violence is priceless.

By now, though, the two armies were to have assembled, screened, and trained their respective armed forces. They were to have turned them into a unified national army and formed a unity government. They were to have resolved disputes over the number and boundaries of South Sudan’s states. As of now, none of this has been achieved. The period since the signing has been wasted.

The question on people’s minds in Juba is whether the cease-fire can last. Judging by how little has been accomplished in the eight months since the signing, the obvious answer would be: no. Judging by the ease with which the parties agreed to extend the deadline to carry out their commitments from May to November, however, the answer would be: maybe.

Neither side seems in a hurry to resume fighting at this point, and both saw advantages in gaining time. For Kiir, the calculus was straightforward. He is in control, both of the government and (mostly) on the ground, so the status quo suits him well. Why rush toward implementing a deal that will require dividing power that is now his alone? Why relinquish any control over armed forces he presently commands? The original request for an extension came from Machar, not Kiir, and the president dragged his feet for a while before acquiescing in what he described as a goodwill gesture. But few were fooled, and in private conversations senior officials in Kiir’s government don’t bother to conceal it: A postponement served them well this time, and it may serve them well the time after that.

Machar’s calculations were more complex but led him to the same conclusion. Returning now meant returning in a position of comparative weakness; his forces have largely demobilized, the balance of power clearly favors his foe, and he fears further defections from his remaining forces should he come back to the capital without adequate concessions from him. Machar’s gamble when he signed the deal appears to have been that he would have time to embark on a recruitment spree, attract new fighters, stack his forces with loyalists from ethnic or clan networks, and build up strength in case of renewed warfare. The opposition offered a preview of this pattern following an earlier accord in 2015, with fateful results: It mobilized fighters from areas previously unaffected by conflict, thus expanding the war’s boundaries as soon as it resumed. Yet, over the past eight months, Machar made few advances in this regard. He has been struggling to get his fighters, many of whom have deserted and now live in refugee camps or other East African capitals, to return.

To achieve his goal, he would have had to have money to pay, feed, and otherwise take care of new recruits. External donors refused to foot the bill, for good reason: The parties intended to create a 300,000-strong joint security force, a significant expansion of what presently exists, most of whose members would have to be freshly recruited, at a cost of more than $200 million. South Sudan needs fewer men with guns, not more. Unable to rebuild his forces, Machar had little option but to seek an extension of the deadline. At a minimum, it gives him a chance for a do-over.

The question remains: How to make the halt in fighting endure? Pressure from outside powers—African nations, but also the United States and Europe—has its part to play. Faced with a credible threat of sanctions targeting their personal economic interests, Kiir and Machar might think twice before dragging their people back down the road of confrontation. But without some advance toward bringing Machar back into the government, and some combination of demobilizing and integrating the two rival armed forces, the risk of a resumption of violence will grow over time. Already, in private conversations, Machar’s aides promise war will reignite if no progress is made in implementing the deal. It could be bluster, of course—but it might not be.

Perhaps the smartest step that could be taken now would be to focus on immediate, realistic steps. Machar’s demands regarding broader reform of the military and integration of his own disparate armed forces may be in line with the agreement he signed. But they won’t happen, or won’t happen anytime soon. Nor is he being sensible in his insistence that he return only after thousands of his fighters are deployed to Juba; twice in the recent past, in 2013 and 2016, a major eruption of violence was triggered by a confrontation between Kiir’s and Machar’s bodyguards. A potential alternative solution would be for an external, third-party force to provide protection for Machar, allow him to return safely and with dignity intact, assume the vice presidency, and—by keeping the process afloat—lend more time and space for the peace deal to progress without holding it hostage to wider security reforms. We suggested such an idea in conversations with the two leaders. Neither jumped at it, but neither shut the door completely. By South Sudanese standards, that counts as hope.

On the plane ride out of Juba, a woman told her story. Half of her family members had been killed; the other half were scattered across the globe. Her mother had been exiled twice, once because of the war with the North, the second time because of South Sudan’s internecine fighting. As a member of the Dinka, the country’s largest ethnic group, she had been kidnapped and tortured by Machar’s predominantly Nuer forces. One Nuer threatened to kill her; another ultimately saved her life. That summed it up for her daughter: The war essentially was engineered and stage-managed from the top. Why, she asked, was the world spending so much time and effort cajoling and trying to persuade Kiir and Machar even as they were busy agitating their constituents for the next battle, rather than focusing on the ordinary people, for whom such ethnic differences hardly matter?

She had a point. Assuming Machar can be persuaded to return, assuming he and Kiir can form a unity government, assuming the process of demobilization and reforming the armed forces can begin, and assuming the cease-fire holds—assuming all that, none of the underlying sources of conflict will have been addressed. The result would be a precarious status quo between one side that feels comfortably entrenched in its current dominant position and another that feels too weak today to take a gamble. It hardly would mean that either side has given up on the goal of eradicating its foe, that memories of brutal ethnic killings have dissipated, or that the brittle equilibrium can persist for long. But it’s far better than the likeliest alternative today—a return to warfare.

For now, South Sudan’s most meaningful ray of hope may lie in its cloudy skies. The six-month rainy season is when fighting is hardest. As we prepared to depart Juba, a powerful rainstorm signaled that it was just around the corner.

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