Nearly two years since their last meeting, rival leaders President Salva Kiir and Dr Riek Machar met face to face on 20 June in Addis Ababa to start a new round of talks to end South Sudan’s prolonged civil war. Will they use this new opportunity to genuinely look at peace dividends?
After separating from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan was plunged into civil war in December 2013 when Kiir accused his then deputy Machar of attempting a coup. Machar fled the capital Juba and created an armed faction – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) – to fight government forces.
Through tireless efforts by the international community, especially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan was signed in August 2015. This agreement temporarily halted the conflict and established the Transitional Government of National Unity.
In line with the power-sharing provisions in the peace deal, Machar returned to Juba to resume his duties as first vice president. However Kiir’s forces began hunting him in July 2016 and forced him into exile in South Africa.
After nearly a year of disengagement, IGAD initiated measures to restore the peace agreement and established a High-Level Revitalisation Forum in December 2017. Considering issues of inclusivity, the forum included a range of diversified interest groups such as the SPLM-IG, SPLM-IO and other armed opposition groups.
IGAD organised two rounds of forum meetings in February and May this year, but neither resulted in a tangible breakthrough. Reasons for this included disagreement on the proposed new power sharing among the diverse groups. Machar’s personal participation in the forum was also denied – to avoid violence. But it seems IGAD was convinced the peace agreement couldn’t be revived without both Machar and Kiir’s positive engagement.
IGAD discussed the parties’ failure to sign a bridging proposal on governance and security proposed at the second round of the High-Level Revitalisation Forum. The regional body then recommended a face-to-face meeting for the two leaders. IGAD also conducted intensive consultations with all parties to find middle ground, and revised the bridging proposal, but again the parties failed to agree.
Kiir has not been willing to talk directly with Machar since he was forced into exile. But now Kiir welcomed the recommendation and met with Machar to discuss ending the conflict.
Why is Kiir now showing willingness to meet and talk directly with his main opponent? It’s likely that he has realised the international community is moving closer to taking serious action against his government.
Recently the United Nations Security Council threatened to impose targeted sanctions on key violators and/or an arms embargo if the conflict did not stop by the end of this month. IGAD also recently proposed punitive measures against violators. This suggests that tough global pressure on the leaders in the conflict could bring peace to South Sudan.
Kiir and Machar have missed many golden opportunities to stop the conflict. Before and after the December 2013 violence, they had chances to narrow their differences and limit the effects of the conflict.
They agreed several times to cease hostilities, and concluded many accords, including the 2015 Arusha agreement for the unification of the SPLM factions, as well as the peace deal in August that year. But each time, the leaders reverted to conflict based on personal interests and at the expense of their people.
As a result, tens of thousands of South Sudanese civilians have died and a quarter of the country’s population has either been displaced internally or sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The conflict has led to a proliferation of armed factions, such as the South Sudan United Front and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance of nine opposition rebel groups.
Kiir and Machar both have popular support, and if they are determined and committed, this week’s meeting could bring peace to the country. However, two factors could challenge the talks.
First, the mistrust developed over time between the two leaders could impede them working together. Second is the challenge of spoilers. There is a high probability that any agreement reached by the two leaders could be disrupted, as some individuals and groups did not support IGAD’s recommendation for the Kiir-Machar meeting.
These include, for example, First Vice President Taban Deng Gai and presidential adviser of security affairs Tut Kew Gatluak. Dr Jacob D Chol, associate professor of international and comparative politics at the University of Juba, told the Institute for Security Studies that these officials and others feared losing out in the struggle for power.
Nevertheless, Kiir and Machar’s roles in restoring peace and stability in South Sudan remain paramount. This important meeting could lead to a renewal of the 2015 peace agreement and could relieve tensions between South Sudan’s two main warring forces. An accord could also encourage other armed factions to reconcile their differences.
IGAD and the UN Security Council must maintain pressure on Kiir and Machar to sort out their differences and build relationships of trust. Equally important are targeted sanctions on those who violate the peace process.
Meressa K Dessu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, ISS Addis Ababa