A step forward in South Sudan

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (third left) shakes hands with First Vice-President Riek Machar (second left) as Third Vice-President Taban Deng Gai (left), Second Vice-President James Wani Igga (second right) and Fourth Vice-President Rebecca Garang attend their swearing-in ceremony at the State House in Juba on February 22, 2020.   | Photo Credit: AFP

The inauguration of a national unity government in South Sudan last week is a milestone following the country’s independence from Sudan in 2011. But the durability of the peace in the world’s youngest nation depends on reconciliation between the majority ethnic Nuer and Dinka communities under the terms of the 2018 peace deal. The first peace deal, attempted in 2015, two years after Juba was plunged into a civil war in 2013 that cost an estimated 3,80,000 lives, collapsed. The implementation of the 2018 deal has been slow.

A compromise

The formation of a unity government, the centrepiece of the 2018 peace agreement, was deferred twice last year over differences regarding the demarcation of regional boundaries. The new formula reflects a compromise between the government of President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the opposition SPLM-IO (in Opposition). Under the new arrangement, the exiled rebel leader Riek Machar is the first vice president (among five), a position he had held until his removal in 2013 on suspicion that he was plotting a coup. A security guarantee for Mr. Machar and other opposition leaders, as also an invitation to the thousands of refugees to return home, are goodwill gestures from President Kiir.

The new package also commits to fresh appointments to a jumbo-sized cabinet, gubernatorial positions for the nation’s 10 states, and the chiefs of the three new administrative regions. The creation of administrative zones had proved contentious as recently as last week. Mr. Machar was apprehensive that such a reconfiguration was just another ruse to reward regime loyalists. President Kiir said last week that he would return to a system of 10 states from 32, a major opposition demand.

The establishment of a tribunal to try war crimes is the other pillar of the 2018 deal. Describing the accord as a turning point, President Kiir had acknowledged that the prolonged conflict since 2013 and the humanitarian crisis was a betrayal of the aspirations behind South Sudan’s independence.


But last year the shortcomings of the 2018 accord became apparent. The European troika and the U.S. saw it as unrepresentative of a broad spectrum of interest groups in South Sudan, focused instead on the country’s elites. A UN report exposed the recruitment of thousands of children into military units, highlighting how regional vested interests were violating the 2018 UN and U.S. embargo on arms sales to South Sudan. A human rights watchdog revealed the diversion of oil revenues to finance armed militias.

No less damning is evidence released last week of civilian casualties, incidents of mass rape and abduction of children documented by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. Established in 2016, the body has said in its third report that while over a million people have been internally displaced, the deliberate obstruction of aid supplies has caused extreme hunger among more than half the population. In particular, the Commission draws attention to continued fighting between government and rebel forces in the Equatoria region, resulting in mass migration to areas bordering DR Congo. Recent executions depict a most ironic picture of a country that has been witness to mayhem and plunder. With many more remaining on death row, the Commission has called for a moratorium on the death penalty.

There is much at stake in the unity government for South Sudan’s vast majority reeling under hunger and malnutrition, and severe drought in recent years. The conduct of free and fair democratic elections in 2022 would be a critical test and confidence-building measure. Institutionalising a legitimate succession mechanism is an important element in that process, given that Mr. Kiir has remained President since independence. The people had voted for secession in a referendum nearly a decade ago. Their hopes cannot be belied by their leaders.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 6:56:23 PM |

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