South Sudan rebels say former political detainees are rank outsiders to the conflict, in what could complicate efforts to reconcile splinter groups in the ruling party.
The "advance team" of five former South Sudanese detainees left Nairobi for Juba on Monday evening and met President Salva Kiir on Tuesday before meeting his nemesis Riek Machar later in the week at an undisclosed location.
On Tuesday, they met with President Kiir in Juba State House.
But Riek Machar’s side, the SPLM-In Opposition, said the group no longer has influence on the search for peace in South Sudan.
“We want to hear it from them because reuniting the party is something we have been supporting,” James Gatdet Dak, spokesman for the SPLM-in Opposition told the Nation on Tuesday evening.
“They are leaders in the SPLM but when it comes to the current war, they have no influence. They do not have a constituency because they have no forces on the ground,” he added.
Rebels argue there are issues to be solved before full reunification in the party can happen. And it is believed the position for the detainees is among them.
The five men held powerful positions in Kiir’s government before the December 16, 2013 coup attempt that led to the current crisis.
Salva Kiir’s government had initially charged them with treason before Kenya and the international community prevailed upon him to drop the charges.
On Tuesday, he welcomed them with open arms, at least according to a statement issued on Tuesday.
“I am happy to receive my comrades back and wish to sincerely thank Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta for hosting them all this time and for wholeheartedly supporting the peace effort,” said Kiir.
The meetings with the two protagonists are supposed to reunite splinter groups within the ruling party, something observers say caused the current war that began in December 2013.
The five are former minister for Cabinet affairs Deng Lor, former finance minister Kosti Manibe, Dr Majak D’Agoot who was deputy minister for defence, former sports minister Cirino Hiteng and former justice minister John Luk.
They are part of the 10-member group of senior politicians within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) who had sided with Riek Machar when forces loyal to him mutinied in 2013.
The incident led to widespread violence that has since displaced more than a million people and more than 15,000 killed, according to the UN.
The other five former detainees who remained in Nairobi are former SPLM secretary-general Pagan Amum, Ezekiel Gatkuoth, Gier Chuang, Madut Biar and Oyai Deng Ajak.
The return of the five was led by South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom and Tanzanian Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Secretary-General Abdulrahman Kinana.
Mr Ramaphosa is a co-guarantor to an agreement the detainees signed in January in Arusha with both the SPLM and the SPLM-in Opposition to start working on reuniting the party.
CCM and the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, had been trying to put together splinter groups. Now they want to merge the peace process with that being midwifed by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad).
Igad is a grouping of seven regional countries; Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan itself.
“The merging of the two processes is in pursuit of sustainable peace and security in the youngest nation in the Horn of Africa” and urged the parties to fully cooperate to achieve the same.
Mr Ramaphosa’s team argues the current conflict began when wrangles emerged within SPLM’s governing body, the National Liberation Council, meaning that efforts must be put in bring those groups back together.
But conflict experts say South Sudan’s war reflects how splinter groups use divisions to benefit from negotiations by issuing a set of demands.
In Burundi’s Arusha negotiations, for instance, rebel groups splintered to an extent that 17 of them were negotiating for a peace agreement in 1998. All of them were to be accommodated in the new government.
Some experts though think merging the two would be difficult since not all parties have been present in the two mediation efforts.
“The two peace processes will be difficult to merge because armed opposition already opted out the intra-party negotiations. Besides, the demands of the armed group (SPLM-in Opposition) is different than those of the detainees. The detainees actually bring nothing to the table,” Mr Steve Paterno, a South Sudanese research analyst on conflict told the Nation.
“The detainees are already excluded from the main peace process under sponsorship of IGAD the armed opposition has more leverage to bring to bear in the negotiations, unlike the detainees,” he added, arguing that it could be a ploy by the government in Juba to get them “out of the way” by swaying them to support Salva Kiir.
Then there is the problem that South Sudan’s ethnic rivalries could continue playing out.
“In post-independence South Sudan, troubled legacies of collaboration weakened institutions, sowed mistrust, and complicated disarmament,” argues Lee Seymour, assistant professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.
“The reintegration of factions that collaborated with the government during the war created an army beset by tribal rivalries and parochial loyalties,” he adds in an article titled, "Why factions switch sides in civil wars."