Since August 2015, the gravest challenge to the South Sudan transitional process and to the viability of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) is posed by President Salva Kiir’s recent appointment of General Taban Deng Gai as first vice president, replacing Riek Machar.
The possibility of the transitional process’ collapse comes as no surprise to close observers of the region.
Rather, there has been a clear understanding that the peace process was brittle. The agreement was, at the same time, the least bad among other bad options that South Sudanese people have to endure.
The situation on the ground
Lack of progress in implementation of the peace agreement that was signed a year ago – particularly the delay in the demilitarisation of Juba – has been the cause of pervasive suspicion, volatility, and instability on the ground.
The parties were not genuinely committed to the ceasefire, as shown by the deliberate introduction of various kinds of obstacles to undermine the transitional process and the barring of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) from playing its steering role in the transitional process.
With the unending mutually assured distrust between the two blocs, led on one side by President Kiir and on the other by First Vice President Riek Machar, the presence of two parallel armies in Juba outside the designated cantonments signalled a high possibility of further clashes.
Triggered by a confrontation in Juba between disgruntled army officers loyal to Kiir and those to bodyguards of Machar – including around the presidential palace – fighting led to the deaths of more than 300 armed personnel and civilians in the first week of July.
In what have looked like like revenge attacks, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fully involved in the killings. This indicates that the leadership of President Kiir is either under the direct influence of the SPLA, or unable to exercise effective civilian control over the country’s armed forces.
This has also put Machar and his supporters in a disadvantaged position because the SPLA has sided with the president and killed many of Machar’s closest bodyguards.
Political and armed deadlock
In effect, in Juba, recent clashes leave Machar with only some bodyguards and Kiir with the entire national army.
Concerned about his personal security and that of the entire SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), which backs him, Machar has demanded the deployment of a regional intervention protection force as a precondition for his return to the Juba.
As the guarantors of the peace agreement met, including the Inter-Government Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union and the United Nations Security Council, they condemned the clashes and the attacks on civilians and the UN personnel and property (PDF).
But more crucially, the guarantors decided to deploy a protection force in Juba. President Kiir quickly rejected the deployment of such a protection force, and hurriedly appointed General Deng.
These two decisions by President Kiir may kill both the Transitional Government and the peace agreement. Machar’s group could boycott the entire peace process, undermining the effectiveness of the peace agreement and taking the country back to where it was in 2013 when the initial conflict erupted.
Deployment of protection forces without the agreement of the government is probably not a wise idea, and thus requires the international community to wait and see if the transitional process could be saved without additional troop deployment.
If the current crisis remains unabated, the SPLA’s shadow over politics could be expected to increase.
Rendering the Transitional Government abortive, recent developments indicate that the government will increasingly fall under the direct influence of the SPLA.
As a result, the country faces further fragmentation within the military and the elite along ethnic and geographical lines.
For this very reason, one immediate action that needs to be taken is the demilitarisation of Juba. That would provide a fair and free platform and establish security for all the institutions in the transitional process, and protection for civilians against potential clashes.
However, could Juba be secured and free for all under the SPLA? In a situation where individual interests clash and bureaucratic institutions are subject to nepotism, it is highly likely that the military would align with one side or the other owing to that partisan political environment.
Hence, the need for deployment of a protection force or boosting the mandate and force level of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan becomes a vital condition for stability in the capital as well as the functioning of the Transitional Government and JMEC.
Now, the question remains: Is it possible to deploy protection forces when the government and the key party to the agreement are opposed?
Given the ethnic nature of the clash and the fact that the armed wing of the opposition still remains under Machar’s leadership, without the full participation of SPLM-IO, the current crisis to the transitional process could rapidly morph into another civil war with mobilisation of opposing forces, and lead to a cycle of revenge by different communities.
Now, the international community, and particularly the IGAD and the AU, need to fight against the collapse of the peace and transitional process, but more crucially they need to be prepared for a total state failure in the already troubled Horn of Africa.
As the saying goes, one can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink. Therefore, South Sudanese political and economic elites, and the population at large, need to keep the transitional process alive by putting pressure on the warring parties to work closely with the international community and Pan-African institutions.
Mehari Taddele Maru is adjunct assistant professor at Addis Ababa University and a member of the African Union High Level Advisory Group.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.