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Hope, scepticism as warring South Sudan leaders sign peace deal

Latest meetings between Kiir, Machar and regional leaders offer slim hope

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Since South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his main rival Dr. Riek Machar agreed to a permanent ceasefire in Khartoum on June 27, many refugees living in Uganda have been watching proceedings with cautious optimism.

Malual Bor Kiir told The Independent that he doubts the current peace process will bring any lasting peace in South Sudan. Instead, he sees the peace process being more about dividing positions among the leaders.

“The war is no longer about Kiir and Machar,” he told The Independent on July 16, “Right now there are up to 14 warring parties.”

Malual, an articulate youth, is one of over a million South Sudanese refugees living in Uganda. But he yearns to return home to South Sudan.

This is his second stint in Uganda as a refugee. He told The Independent that he first lived in Uganda as a refugee for close to a decade until he left in 2011 when South Sudan gained independence after a protracted civil war.

He says he was desperate to begin a new life as “a free and proud South Sudanese.” And everything looked rosy until 2013 when war broke out in the world’s youngest nation. Malual had no option but to flee southwards again—to Uganda.

The war broke out when Salva Kiir accused his then-deputy, Machar, of plotting a military coup. Since then, the conflict has expanded, dashing the optimism that accompanied independence from Sudan two years earlier.

As the fighting intensified, more than a dozen warring factions were formed—most of them under the umbrella called South Sudan Opposition Alliance. Many of these are now part of the Khartoum agreement between Kiir and Machar. But many remain out, casting doubt on the durability and value of the agreement.

Garang Mabior, the spokesperson of one of the main opposition groups, SPLM/IO told Al Jazeera early this month that they reject some of the proposals in the agreement.

The leaders in and out of government in South Sudan have previously been involved in multiple attempts at peace deals. But they have always failed. This has left the long-suffering citizens wondering whether this latest attempt at peace will fall apart as well.

Kiir and Machar, for example, signed a peace agreement in August 2015. But it collapsed about a year later, in July 2016, when fighting broke out between the two sides in the capital, Juba.

The war has left the oil-rich country’s economy in tatters and its agriculture sector disrupted. The war has also been marked by atrocities by all sides documented by the UN and there has been fear of possible genocide. UN peace keepers have been deployed since South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

Keeping hope alive

Despite the bad history, some refugees like Malual, are optimistic that the agreement will this time stand because of the heavy involvement of almost all heads of state of the East African region.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has since the start of the year been holding various talks with warring faction leaders and other relevant players to find lasting peace in South Sudan.

The on-and-off talks climaxed on June 20 when Kiir and Machar first met face to face in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa at a private event overseen by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed.

The next day, the heads of state in the IGAD bloc held the 32nd Extraordinary Summit focusing on South Sudan in the Ethiopian capital.

Machar who has been in virtual house detention in Pretoria was only allowed to travel under a deal brokered between South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta under the auspices of IGAD’s council of foreign ministers.

A week later, on June 27, Kiir and Machar signed the agreement in Khartoum.

After the Khartoum agreement; to further strengthen it, on July 7, Kiir and Machar met in Entebbe, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The meeting was attended by President al- Bashir and was aimed at polishing off outstanding issues on governance and power sharing in South Sudan.

The Khartoum Declaration Agreement has five critical areas that will form the foundation of a comprehensive peace agreement.

These include; a permanent ceasefire; reforms in the security sector; rehabilitation of South Sudan’s oil wells and improvement of the South Sudanese infrastructure connected with the livelihood of the citizens.

The agreement further calls for the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid, the release of prisoners of war and political detainees, the withdrawal of forces, and a transitioning unity government to be formed within four months which will govern the country for 36 months.

It also allows members of the African Union and the East African Community together with the East African regional bloc—IGAD that has been pushing peace efforts— to deploy the necessary forces to supervise the agreed permanent ceasefire.

Another proposal is to have three different capitals for South Sudan to distribute power. But the mechanisms of how the signatories will go about improving the infrastructure and basic service in sectors that cater to the day to day livelihood of citizens is loosely described in the agreement with the provision that the parties are to appeal to the international community for help.

Some of the provisions have not gone well with some of the parties involved in the peace process. Garang Mabior, the spokesperson of one of the opposition groups, SPLM/IO told Al Jazeera early this month that they reject the three capitals proposal because South Sudan is one country.

The provision for the African Union and IGAD to provide forces to oversee the ceasefire has also not gone down well with the rebel group, and Garang said there was no guarantee the ceasefire will work.

Some factions have warned that they do not recognise the South Sudan parliament’s recent extension of President Kiir’s tenure. On July 12, the South Sudanese parliament voted unanimously to approve the extension of Kiir’s term for three more years.

The Transitional Constitution Amendment Bill No.5 of 2018 was, according to Speaker Anthony Lino Makana, designed to avoid a power vacuum as Kiir’s term ends in August under the 2015 peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa. Under the new arrangement, Kiir can now remain in power until 2021.

Enforcing the embargo

Meanwhile, on July 13, the UN Security Council imposed an arms ban and other targeted sanctions on South Sudan, on grounds of persistent political stalemate in the country. This followed a UN report released on July 10 alleging mass atrocities committed by the government troops in the former Unity State in April and May.

The report said 232 civilians were brutally killed and women and girls subjected to mass rape. The UN says the atrocities amount to war crimes and has demanded that the military commanders who led the operations face justice.

The US-led resolution won the minimum nine votes needed, while Russia, China, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan abstained, saying there were already regional attempts to revitalize the South Sudan peace process. But the US remained resolute in its support for an arms embargo.

“South Sudan’s people have endured unimaginable suffering and unspeakable atrocities. Their leaders have failed them,” US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told the council before the vote, “We need the violence to stop.”

The UN Security Council arms embargo will not resolve the crisis in South Sudan. The South Sudan Foreign Affairs ministry spokesperson, Mawien Makol, said the arms ban would instead jeopardise the government’s peace efforts.

“Well, the government is not happy with these sanctions. We are seeing them as not being the solution to instability,” he told Reuters.

He instead called for cooperation between the international community and Juba so as to achieve lasting peace. Some observers say the move to extend Kiir’s mandate until 2021 is likely to undermine the peace talks as opposition groups have said the change would be illegal.

South Sudan’s UN Ambassador Akuei Bona Malwal told the council that the resolution would undermine peace and was a slap in the face of those organizations who are trying to bring peace in South Sudan.

But Britain’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce said the resolution is not against the peace process; it is designed to protect the people of South Sudan.

“We expect the peace process to continue,” she said.

Some regional observers, including Arthur Bainomugisha, the executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), an influential Kampala-based think tank, also told The Independent on July 16 that the sanctions could push the conflicting parties towards the negotiating table in a carrot and stick strategy by the international community.

Bainomugisha is familiar with these arrangements after participating as a Civil Society Fellow with the International Peace Institute (IPI), a New York based think tank, in the peace talks between President Museveni’s government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, that were mediated by the Government of Southern Sudan and the international community.

“The proliferation of arms in the country is responsible for fuelling the conflict so curtailing the flow of arms into a war zone is one way of ending the war,” said Bainomugisha.

“We know that both the government and the rebels have been receiving lots of arms from their supporters and perhaps that explains why they have not committed themselves to a peace deal,” Bainomugisha said, “So within the UN framework, this is one way of drying up the resources so that the parties are induced to negotiate for durable peace.”

Sabiiti Makara, a professor of political science also told The Independent that the UN Security Council’s arms embargo is meant to be complementary because if both sides are “armed to the teeth” and they trust more their ammunition, may be they will not concede to the peace process or if they do, they are likely to harbour some other motives on both sides.

But for some, like Dr. Solomon Asiimwe, a senior lecturer of governance at Uganda Martyrs University, the concern is more about enforcement of the embargo.

Asiimwe says the UN has come in with the arms embargo as part of the solution but he says it is important to put in place a monitoring mechanism for it to succeed. Asiimwe wants the UN to sanction whoever breaks the arms embargo.

“The international community should make the South Sudan conflict more cumbersome for the protagonists,” he said, “The solution to South Sudan’s conflict is to make it so difficult (for them) to carry on.”

As for Malual, he says Machar and Kiir have friends in the region and they can continue buying arms through their friends.

“It is important to make regional players embrace this embargo,” he says. And his main worry and possibly that of most of the Sudanese refugees, is that the body language between Kiir and Machar during all the recent peace engagements, appears rather nervous and speaks of suspicion not trust.

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