Thousands of residents of South Sudan’s capital Juba are celebrating a peace deal signed by President Salva Kiir and his ousted deputy Riek Machar, which rekindles hope that the guns will finally fall silent in a country devastated by civil war.
A combination of vicious conflict, drought and famine has been making the situation in the world’s youngest nation especially grim since 2013 when a Kiir-Machar tussle for power degenerated into a broader ethnic conflict.
The second power-sharing agreement was signed on Aug. 5 in Khartoum. The irony of Sudan, of which South Sudan was a part, hosting a conference to bring peace and stability to the latter was not lost on anyone. The largely Christian and African South had to wage Africa’s longest civil war to win freedom from the Muslim and Arab North in 2011.
But this was not the only irony. Under the latest deal, Machar will be returning to the vice presidency for a third time to be part of a government led by his adversary. A similar deal fell apart in July 2016 when fighting erupted in the capital and Machar had to flee the country. The agreement envisages a government with five vice-presidents, 45 ministers and a parliament composed of 550 members.
President Kiir has announced amnesty to Machar and all armed rebel groups. The former vice president was freed this year from house arrest in South Africa, where he had been held since fleeing South Sudan in 2016. Kiir also ordered the army to allow unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies to respond to massive humanitarian needs across the country and to respect the ceasefire agreed in June by both the government and Machar’s rebels.
What is the guarantee the Khartoum agreement will not meet the fate of previous ones?
One ground for hope is the decision by the government and the rebels to permit members of the African Union and another regional group, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to deploy peacekeeping troops to South Sudan. Kiir mentions another one. External pressure, he says, was responsible for the collapse of previous deals. But this one is mediated by Sudan and East African nations. Negotiations leading to the final draft took place in almost all the four main cities of the region.
Related to this are the roles played by Sudanese President Omar Bashir and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni.
Bashir has significant leverage over Machar’s and other South Sudanese rebel groups — which he had long been supporting — and can convince them to accept a compromise. Museveni has stood by Kiir ever since the conflict started. Both Bashir and Museveni seem to have finally reached an understanding regarding the future of South Sudan, making it possible for a ceasefire deal acceptable to both sides to be signed.
Still if people in South Sudan and outside have misgivings, it is only because the conduct of South Sudanese leaders, whether in government or opposition, does not inspire confidence. Very often they have placed their personal or sectarian interests above that of their nation.
Kiir’s worry may be how to provide the needed accommodations and vehicles for the members of a jumbo cabinet. But many would agree with the criticism voiced by the Troika countries of the US, UK and Norway on Friday that the peace process is not inclusive enough. Civil society, religious leaders and ethnic minorities were not part of the discussions leading to the agreement.
The Khartoum round of talks, we are told, will continue until Sunday. Let us hope the next round will consider all dissenting views and take measures to make the arrangements for peace and stability realistic and sustainable. First of all, the parties must develop clear plans for the transition period. They should give sufficient thought to how security will be provided in Juba during the transition period and how meaningful checks can be placed on executive power.