Can two warring leaders cooperate in South Sudan?

Published on Thursday, 9 August 2018 18:05

South Sudan’s tortured history as an independent nation since 2011 is cause for near-despair. Its leaders have repeatedly gone to war against each other, displacing nearly 2 million people internally and 2.5 million beyond its borders, leaving more than 5 million in need of food aid and subjecting the population to the most horrific abuse and violence. Now, President Salva Kiir and rival leader Riek Machar have signed yet another peace agreement. It is easy to be pessimistic. But they, and outside leaders, must do everything possible to make this one stick. Their track record is miserable, but another failure will deepen the suffering.

Machar was Kiir’s deputy when civil war first broke out in 2013. They came to a peace agreement in 2015 that deteriorated into new fighting the following year. Cease-fires have often dissolved within hours. Machar fled the country to South Africa after the last deal collapsed in a frenzy of violence in 2016. On July 13, the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo, a necessary step to restrain the warring sides, though it would have been better a few years earlier, and will be worth something only if enforced.

The new agreement seems flimsy. Kiir will remain in power and appears to have simply sliced and diced South Sudan’s government into more tiny pieces to placate his rival. The agreement creates a transition period during which Machar will again become first vice president; the government will include 20 ministers from Kiir’s party, nine from Machar’s and six from other groups; parliament will be expanded from 400 seats to 550, including 338 from Kiir’s group and 128 from Machar’s, and the remainder from others. The document says that decision-making in the presidency should be “in the spirit of collegial collaboration” but that is hard to imagine after so much blood has been spilled. Analyst Alan Boswell told the the Associated Press that twice before, in 2013 and 2016, Kiir “violently expelled” Machar when he was bidding for power. “Both events led to large-scale atrocities,” Boswell said. “This peace deal sets up the exact same scenario for the third time. When it fails, it fails explosively.”

Nor does it bode well that this deal was essentially negotiated behind closed doors in Khartoum, under Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, while omitting South Sudan’s civil society, which has flourished despite the hardships. The United States played a key role in South Sudan’s independence but is now watching from a distance. The last White House statement on the conflict, from July 22, before the new deal was signed, warned that the United States would not guarantee any agreement, nor support U.N. funding for a transitional government, “in the absence of a sustained, demonstrated commitment to peace, inclusivity, financial accountability and good governance.” None of that has been exhibited by these two warring rivals so far.

For the sake of South Sudan’s 12 million people, we hope they show such a commitment now.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Thursday, 9 August 2018 18:05. Updated: Thursday, 9 August 2018 18:07.