Opposition leader Raila Odinga may be receiving a positive response for his initial attempt to help resolve the South Sudan conflict, but observers say it could be a mountain to climb.
Mr Odinga on May 25 met with South Sudan President Salva Kiir in what his handlers said simply was a meeting to discuss “matters of regional security and stability”. Sources have since told the Sunday Nation Mr Odinga was making initial contacts to try and restore peace talks which have stalled.
Both President Kiir and rebel groups under Riek Machar say they will accept Mr Odinga should he be formally appointed a mediator.
“If Mr Odinga has been delegated by President Uhuru, we will respect that as a decision by a friendly country to assist. We have no conditions against him,” Mr James P. Morgan, South Sudan’s Ambassador to the African Union, told the Nation.
“I think Raila has played his politics in Kenya very well. He has never taken up arms against his country so if he can convince (rebel leader) Riek Machar to accept peace, that will be fine with us,” the envoy said on Friday.
The rebels led by former Vice-President Machar, on hearing about the meeting, told a press conference in Nairobi his legitimacy will be boosted by a public endorsement from the Kenyan government.
MEETING DR MACHAR
“We are aware that Raila met President Salva Kiir in Juba, and we are looking forward to a meeting with Dr Machar too. We hope this initiative is further helped by Kenya by authorising Raila to try and bridge the gap,” Mr Henry Odwar, the lead negotiator from Dr Machar’s side, said.
“He is a friend to us, the South Sudanese people. We in the opposition have trust in him. But he has not briefed or contacted us yet,” spokesman James Oryema said. Mr Odinga’s role in resolving the conflict is part of the results of the handshake, where he was to be a statesman to help deal with the chaos in the region, sources say. If the region accepts him, it would be the second time he would be trying to resolve a regional conflict.
Mr Odinga, then as Prime Minister, was called in by the African Union to mediate in the then conflict in Cote d’Ivoire. Former President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara had both claimed victory in the November 2010 election, a contest that led to bloodshed.
By the time Mr Odinga was made mediator, more than 200 people had been killed and 14,000 others displaced. Although they supported mediation, the US, Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), United Nations and European Union had all acknowledged that Ouattara was the winner of the election.
Trouble was how to get Gbagbo out of the seat. Redacted emails published by the US State Department had showed the crisis in Ivory Coast had become a concern for the US and envoys had directly been in talks with several African leaders.
However, Mr Odinga’s appointment was immediately rejected by the Gbagbo side, which termed him partial. He had earlier lambasted Mr Gbagbo and asked him to concede defeat.
Can he hack it in South Sudan? Some analysts think it is yes and no.
“Raila is likely to succeed because he is quite a neutral figure and a well known political leader in the region who has not taken any side in South Sudan’s unfolding crisis,” said Bol Khan, a South Sudanese rights activist.
“President Kiir and former First VP Machar will both struggle to win the trust of a new mediator by giving their political ideas and diplomacy campaigns. Each will try hard to prove their innocence.
“The chances are very high for him being a successful mediator, or in bringing the two rivals together into a meaningful understanding. This is if he is assigned by a continental entity like AU or global body like UN not IGAD. People will see that a new mediation is coming up from AU or the UN,” he told the Sunday Nation.
For South Sudan though, the conflict is beyond Kiir and Machar. Since December 2013, when the violence first started, splinter groups have grown from an initial two to more than 10, meaning any deal will involve them too.
“Raila is throwing his luck in an unlucky situation of South Sudan.
“This might be good for his own political promotion, but not really of any good for South Sudan,” said Dr James Okuk, a political science don at the University of Juba.
“It has been proved that once military or guerilla leaders differ, they can’t trust themselves again even after being forced or persuaded to reunite,” he added.
Eight-member regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), has been midwifing the deal since 2013. In August 2015, they convinced Kiir and Machar to sign, but the two sides broke the agreement several months later. The group includes Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia and on-off Eritrea.
Critics charge member states of IGAD are not neutral in the conflict. Uganda is accused of fuelling the conflict by channelling weapons to Juba (Kampala denies this).
Kenya is accused of coordinating deportation of rebel politicians staying in Nairobi. Machar’s spokesman James Dak, activists Dong Luak and Aggrey Idri mysteriously disappeared from the streets of Nairobi, and were deported to Juba. Kenya denied any role in this.
“Igad has lost the steam and skills of mediation in the conflict. It has, worst of all, even lost credibility,” argued Dr Okuk.
“My proposal is for Igad to hand over the peace file of South Sudan to the AU,” he added. Actually, the Igad process is a delegated duty of the African Union and the continental body routinely provides observers to the talks.
Foreign Affairs Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba, who sat in those talks, denied the bloc was pushing unrealistic solutions.
“We are not talking about abstracts here. We are talking about human lives. As a party to this negotiation, you cannot walk away with 100 per cent wish list.”