South Sudan: Can any peace deal involving Kiir and Machar last?

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South Sudan’s leaders once again claim the country’s civil war is over – something we’ve heard numerous times before. Of course, this time they tell us it’s different and, in many ways, it is – but there are two key similarities that have been there at every failed peace effort in South Sudan’s short history as an independent nation.

They go by the name of President Salva Kiir and returning vice president Riek Machar.

According to The Associated Press, Kiir could be seen refusing to shake Machar’s hand in video footage shortly after the pair signed a power-sharing deal earlier this month. Their fractious relationship has been at the heart of South Sudan’s civil war and multiple peace agreements that failed to prevent it from dragging on for half a decade.

Unsurprisingly, there’s continued doubt that this latest peace deal will hold either.

“We have seen time again that power-sharing is a recipe for more conflict in South Sudan and that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are in fact obstacles to ending the war and not vehicles for resolving the conflict,” Payton Knopf, a former coordinator of the U.N. panel of experts on South Sudan said about the deal.

The US, Britain and Norway have expressed their concerns that the arrangements in this latest agreement are neither realistic nor sustainable. While various comments from members of South Sudan’s opposition over the past few weeks have done little to inspire confidence.

Likewise, when AP spoke to people living in one of the few remaining opposition strongholds in South Sudan, every one of them said they doubted that peace will last following the latest power-sharing agreement.

Faith in South Sudan’s peace process is at an all-time low and previous failures mean that any agreement between the government and opposition seems irrelevant at this stage. Certainly, outside of South Sudan, there’s a growing sentiment that any peace deal involving Salva Kiir and Riek Machar is destined to fail and it seems a similar sentiment exists in the country itself.

What is different this time around?

If there’s any reason for hope with this latest peace deal, it’s that South Sudan’s leaders have little room left for violating the terms of this latest agreement. The power-sharing deal signed earlier this month is more detailed than previous agreements and this means culpability will be harder to escape.

Whether this places enough pressure on the country’s warring sides to maintain peace is something we can only speculate.

There’s also mounting pressure from the international community placed upon the government and opposition to ensure this peace deal succeeds where previous ones failed. When a similar power-sharing deal was signed in 2015, South Sudan still had the backing of the US and other key members of the West. However, the rapid failure of the agreement and the violent nature in which it was violated tested the patience of even South Sudan’s most sympathetic supporters.

When two ceasefires were later violated within hours of being implemented – one on Boxing Day last year and another in June – South Sudan almost entirely isolated itself from the international community. Tolerance for further violations will be almost non-existent this time around and the threat of sanctions is almost guaranteed.

However, the question still remains over how much the international community can (or will be willing to) do if South Sudan’s brief history repeats itself once again.

Finally, South Sudan’s conflict has left the country’s economy in tatters. The East African nation, quite literally, can’t afford to keep funding a civil war without conclusion. Unfortunately for the people of South Sudan, the country’s leaders are still sitting pretty comfortably while half of the population faces extreme hunger.

There’s a limit to how long this can continue, of course – especially if sanctions are placed against South Sudan – but neither the government nor opposition have shown any hint of considering the plight of South Sudanese citizens during the past five years of conflict.

Expecting this to change now would be naive.

Where is the desire for peace?

Despite increasing pressure from external sources and domestic issues, it’s difficult to see any desire for peace in South Sudan’s government and opposition. While the president is apparently refusing to shake the hand of the man he’s just signed a peace deal with, soldiers in the country are being told they’ll now be expected to fight alongside the soldiers who spent the past five years shooting at them and killing their colleagues.

When VOA spoke to the captain of the opposition’s military intelligence for Panyijiar County, he expressed his shock at the news that South Sudan’s rival forces will be merged under the new peace deal.

Various opposition officials have also insisted that the existing peace deal doesn’t address a number of key issues.

With all the external pressure placed on South Sudan’s government and opposition, it was always going to be difficult for Kiir and Machar to turn their backs on negotiations. They didn’t much choice other than signing a peace agreement, whether their concerns were fully addressed or not. The problem is, forcing the two sides to sign a peace deal neither party wants doesn’t exactly sound like solid foundations for peace.

The reality is no peace deal between Kiir and Machar is going to appease both sides because their demands are almost polar opposite. The government wants to cement its place in power while the opposition wants to take as much of it away as possible. In a tug of war there has to be a loser for there to be a winner and any peace deal between these two leaves both sides feeling like losers.

Sadly, the real losers in all of this are the people living in South Sudan who are victim to grave human rights violations, forced to flee their homes in a bid to escape violence and fighting to survive a crippling food shortage.

Featured image: By Jason Patinkin (VOA) – http://www.voanews.com/a/government-soldiers-leave-juba-before-rebel-leaders-return/3286194.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56846864

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.