South Sudan: Is Peace Even Possible Under Current Leadership?
Last week South Sudan formed its long-awaited transitional government – eight months after President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar committed to doing so in a peace deal signed last August. In the meantime, fighting between various rival groups in the country has continued, including government forces and Machar’s SPLMA-IO armed rebel group.
When the two rival sides that started South Sudan’s civil war more than two years ago aren’t fighting, they’ve been busy passing the blame to one another. All the while Kiir and Machar have insisted they’re dedicated to honouring the peace agreement signed last year. But now that the leaders have reuinited to lead the country, the burning question is whether peace is even possible under its current leadership.
The root of South Sudan’s conflict
Tensions between Kiir and Machar root back to the semi-autonomous region of southern Sudan, before it became an independent state. Machar considered himself a more suitable leader for a new South Sudan and Jok Madut Jok, the head of South Sudan think tank, the Sudd Institution, says Machar would attempt to undermine Kiir’s leadership.
This strained relationship would continue as Kiir became president of an independent South Sudan in 2011 with Machar as his deputy. In 2013 Kiir caused outrage when he started firing high-profile cabinet members and this would soon include his vice-president Riek Machar. Removed from his position Machar declared he would challenge President Kiir in the 2015 elections – a campaign that never materialised. In December 2013, Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup against the government and the country’s internal power struggle spilled out into the streets. South Sudan’s first civil war as an independent state had begun.
A war prolonged by bitter rivalries
South Sudan’s civil war stemmed from bitter infighting between the new country’s government. When Kiir and Machar signed a permanent ceasefire in August last year, under growing international pressure, both made it clear they were unhappy. Kiir labelled the deal a “roadmap to regime change,” Machar complained it gave Kiir’s government the “lion’s share” of power.
Military officers publically disapproved the deal, while rebels insisted further details needed to be agreed before it could be considered a fair deal. Fighting quickly resumed and South Sudan saw its seventh peace deal fail since civil war broke out 15 months previous.
Renewed hopes for peace dashed by fresh conflicts and human rights abuses
Hopes for peace in South Sudan received a much-needed boost in February this year when President Kiir announced Machar would return to his position as the country’s vice-president. His declaration paved the way for way for a return to South Sudan, as it was before being torn apart by conflict more than two years ago.
However, even the arrival of Machar in the country’s capital Juba was fraught with delays and political quarrels. Meanwhile, the UN and other international groups released a string of reports on the grave human rights violations taking place in South Sudan. Last week the UN and Amnesty International accused the country’s forces of burning children and disabled people alive – merely the latest of a horrific collection of accusations.
Can these two lead South Sudan to peace?
More than a year since a leaked African Union (AU) report said Kiir and Machar were not fit to lead South Sudan signs of change are finally maturing. President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar are reunited and the nation’s transitional government has been established. Now comes the time to prove they are both as committed to bringing peace to South Sudan as they have insisted all this time.
The bitter rivalry between the nation’s two leaders will remain a concern, but the biggest worry at this stage is how much authority they will have in South Sudan’s divided political landscape. The government and Machar’s rebel group aren’t the only armed forces in the country and many of them played no part in the peace deal signed in August.
Civilians have voiced their concerns that South Sudan’s peace deal will have no effect on a local level.
“It’s a peace agreement that has taken so long to be implemented that it no longer reflects the reality on the war,” one man told reporters. “Maybe a unity government will be formed, but this will have little influence on the ground, where armed groups are fighting for goals very different to Machar’s.”
And, now that the country’s transitional government has been formed, there’s no room for shifting the blame. Kiir and Machar will share success and failure from here on in and the whole world is watching. The question on everyone’s mind is whether these bitter rivals turned peace partners have what it takes to bring lasting peace to the streets of South Sudan.