The story of South Sudan has long been marked by false starts, followed by unmitigated disaster and civil war. Numerous peace agreements, formal and informal, have been signed before, which then collapse spectacularly.
In the latest major development, Africa’s youngest country was set to form a unity government Saturday in a deal agreed on Thursday by President Salva Kiir and his opposition rival Riek Machar. An initial peace pact had been reached between them in September 2018, but two critical deadlines were missed in May and November last year. As before, Kiir will remain President while Machar will share power as First Vice-President.
As always, huge and daunting obstacles lie ahead. A key component of the agreement is the protection of opposition forces and members, which was the reason that prompted the breakdown of a previous peace deal and the fleeing from the country of Machar in 2016. There was a shoot-out between Kiir’s and Machar’s bodyguards, with Kiir charging that Machar was plotting a coup.
The other imponderable is integrating Kiir’s troops and the forces of Machar into a national army. There are also numerous armed irregulars and militias that have to be first disarmed or absorbed into the national security apparatus.
Independence came in 2011, but barely three years later civil war broke out. Among the affected persons were Kenyan business people and aid workers; thousands of them fled from the country. Another hyped peace deal was worked out in 2015, but soon broke down, prompting Machar to flee into the bush and emerge briefly in Congo.
The war has killed nearly 400,000 people. Some 2 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. A million more are internally displaced. Humanitarian convoys into the country are routinely blocked by militias, and mass rapes are common. There is also the problem of child soldiers, which the UN says both sides have heavily recruited. Poverty is rampant.
One immediate bone of contention that threatened to be a stumbling block of the latest deal was Kiir’s latter-day creation of 32 states from the original 10 at independence. His argument has been that decentralisation boosts local development. But Machar’s faction fiercely opposed the decision, complaining it was taken for purposes of gerrymandering and to benefit Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group. Machar is a Nuer.
Last month, Kiir acceded to compromise and agreed to a return of the original 10 states, but then he brought a new hurdle when he proposed three regions – Abyei, Ruweng and Piwong – to become “special administrative areas”. Machar immediately rejected those additions. Ruweng is particularly contentious: it is a major oil producer and the Dinka and Nuer have been in contracted conflict over its control.
The South Sudan conflict is simplistically seen as a Dinka vs Nuer civil war. The fact is that there are other groups, either in opposition to the government or allied to it. This makes the question of states formation and that of forces integration especially intractable.
Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, wants South Sudan’s National Assembly to radically reform the National Security Service to end arbitrary detentions and abuse of detainees. This is one of the sticking points in the peace process, more so from the point of view of local NGOs.
Over the years, South Sudan’s oil wealth has been plundered indiscriminately by elites in the government, something that the neighbours know about but do little to stop, at least by preventing the loot from being laundered in their countries. The UN has a dossier on culprits implicated in crimes and abuses, and also in the looting, which it threatens to unleash at an appropriate time.
The US, which is a major guarantor of the Juba unity deal, has chosen another tack. Since December, Washington has sanctioned several high-ranking South Sudanese officials deemed to be a hindrance to the peace process. One of them is Taban Deng Gai, Vice-President and a close pal of Kiir.
South Sudan has been a place where hopes and dreams die before they even begin to flower. Mistrust runs very deep among the various factions. Amazingly, the neighbours and the international community have never given up on trying to fix things there, tedious as this has been. Still, there are always limits to patience.
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The Directorate of Criminal Investigations has told us that Kenya is in the grip of international criminal groups that scam top government officials with impunity. This is extremely alarming. DCI must expeditiously investigate and unmask those behind the latest Sh39 billion arms scam. Who were the scammers working within government? What is the extent of their local networks? And for how long have they infiltrated government offices? Let these crooks be exposed once and for all.