Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

South Sudanese ceasefire?

Gamal Nkrumah looks at the tentative truce to end fighting in South Sudan signed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Battling for dominion over the oil-rich and sprawling nation straddling vital River Nile waters and countless tributaries has been a traditional pastime of South Sudanese warlords for decades. Most of the combatants and their commanders never conquered huge swathes of territory for long. Instead their incursions into the strongholds of one or the other rival militias were often tantamount to cattle rustling and the towns of the impoverished nation were subjected to gruelling sieges.

Regional and international statesmen and observers were, therefore, cautiously optimistic when representatives of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) headed by South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his arch rival and former vice president Reik Machar met in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last Thursday. It became clear that Machar was the loser, at least at this historical juncture. His lack of political control came ever more sharply into focus. The fighting was supposed to come to an end within 24 hours of the signing of the “cessation of hostilities” accord. Largely it petered out, but pockets of resistance to the mainstream SPLM loyal to Kiir remained strong and have become a latent threat to peace and stability, not only in South Sudan but also in the entire Nile Basin.

President Kiir proved to be a far-sighted and astute operator. He moved with marked restraint against his adversaries. Machar, in sharp contrast, was testing the waters, gauging whether open rebellion would follow. Alas it didn’t, at least not on the scale he had hoped. Both men were making a show of strength as a precursor to intense diplomatic wrangling. Kiir and Machar appear to have been acutely aware that this standoff and low intensity hostilities might in time escalate into open conflict.

Hamstrung by political divisions and hampered by a lack of shared ideology apart from opposition to Kiir’s presidency, Machar ultimately failed to stir disgruntled elements within the SPLM to action. But, truth be told, it was regional powers and the international community that forced the ceasefire agreement on Machar. He had no choice in the matter save passing through verdant jungles and obnoxious swamps to reach strategic provincial capitals of oil-rich states such as Bentui in Unity State and Bor in Jongolei State respectively. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, Malakal capital of Upper Nile State, and Machar’s last stronghold was reported to have fallen into Kiir’s hands. Machar’s has been a massive challenge.

Still, a crucial question remains unanswered. Why did endless thousands of Machar’s sympathisers answer his call to fight Kiir, knowing full well that they might face intense suffering and even annihilation? Indeed, there is mounting evidence that hapless villagers were callously turned into human shields.

Machar has been thwarted in his attempt to retain control of Bentui and Bor. Effective monitoring of the truce will be vital once it begins to take shape. But who will the monitors and peacekeepers be?

The French have deployed troops in their former colonies of neighbouring Central African Republic and Mali in West Africa. They cannot be expected to get involved militarily in South Sudan. Other Western powers are reluctant to deploy peacekeeping forces in the political quagmire of South Sudan.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African economic and political grouping, has been instrumental in the signing of the Addis Ababa ceasefire accord. However, it is no secret that Kenyan and Ugandan troops fought alongside Kiir’s forces and tipped the balance in his favour.

Two other powers have played critical roles behind the scenes — China and Sudan. But neither Beijing nor Khartoum would be interested in taking part in a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. China as a rule shies away from direct political interference and military escapades in Africa. Beijing prefers to focus on economic and commercial concerns. Khartoum’s intervention would be out of the question.

Open conflict between Sudan and South Sudan was, in part, averted by Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir’s preoccupations elsewhere in his realm, even though he did turn up in Juba to try and iron out differences between Kiir and Machar.

To compound Machar’s problems, the rulers of East Africa put aside their differences in order to unite against the threatening tide of political instability in South Sudan. Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda work in tandem in the region, whether in South Sudan or in Somalia. But it now seems that Sudan, too, is joining the fray.

So far, the outcome of the confrontation between Kiir and Machar has enhanced Kiir’s burgeoning reputation as an astute politician with impressive political acumen. But pitched battles aside, neither of the two rivals has proved a marked superiority in the battlefield. Kiir has yet to prove that he will be relying upon discipline rather than martial ferocity to prevail, and more importantly curtailing any harrying of his retreating foes once they have been driven from the strategic towns.

Kiir’s adversaries are fond of portraying his “tyrannical” rule as an unmitigated disaster. The widow of the late legendary Sudanese leader John Garang, Rebecca Nyandeng Garang, and currently Kiir’s adviser on human rights and gender, met Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at his country estate in Rwakitura, Uganda, to plead the cause of Machar. Ironically, she was a member of Machar’s delegation at the Addis Ababa peace talks.

Nyangdeng Garang attempted to rejuvenate Machar’s sullied reputation among East African leaders and pointed out to Museveni that there are serious domestic political concerns among the political establishment in South Sudan, and that includes the rank and file of the ruling SPLM. Indeed, she left the Addis Ababa conference delegating her son, Mabior Garang Maboir, instead to head Machar’s delegation.

Nyandeng Garang raised the issue of 11 detainees — whom Machar’s men wanted freed, and whose fate had previously left the peace talks deadlocked — with Museveni. It is still not entirely clear what the fate of the 11 detainees will be. Nevertheless, what is absolutely certain is that Machar and his supporters can only be placated if and when the ministers detained are freed.

Nyandeng Garang, an ethnic Dinka, sided with Machar, an ethnic Nuer, proving that the supposed “tribal” nature of the South Sudan conflict is gobbledygook. She warned East African leaders that the 11 high profile detainees, including several ethnic Dinka, must be released unconditionally and immediately otherwise, the “cessation of hostilities” accord simply will not last long.

Kiir, in sharp contrast, was unequivocal in his optimism. “For the people of South Sudan, I am pleased to tell them that the conflict that erupted in December, that was uncalled for, and will be resolved through peaceful dialogue,” he enthusiastically declared.

Machar was not so amused. By Friday he was already protesting that the ceasefire had already been violated by Kiir and his hangers-on. The spectre of wholesale murder and even genocide and ethnic cleansing looms ominously over the horizon of South Sudanese politics, with or without the Addis Ababa ceasefire.

IGAD’s chief mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s former foreign minister, warned that the implementation process could be a challenge. In the context of South Sudanese history, the role played by IGAD proved to be critical. Regional players, and in particular Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, played a pivotal role in enforcing the ceasefire. The crucial question is whether they will muster the same tenacity to pacify disgruntled elements within and outside the SPLM and ensure that peace lasts.

“I believe that the post-war challenges will be greater than the war itself. The process will be unpredictable and delicate,” Mesfin extrapolated.

“What worries us is whether the agreement on the cessation of hostilities will stick,” observed South Sudan’s government negotiator, Nhial Deng Nhial. “We would like to take this opportunity to urge the rebel group to heed the voice of reason and abandon the quest for political power through violence.” However, Machar’s men object to the appellation “rebel”.

Western powers, too, played a part. US President Barack Obama, whose country provided crucial backing on South Sudan’s path to statehood, described the deal as “a critical first step towards building a lasting peace”. Obama stressed that “South Sudan’s leaders need to work to fully and immediately implement the agreement and start an inclusive political dialogue to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also welcomed the ceasefire and called for an “inclusive process of national reconciliation”.

Presumably, much depends on whether Machar will be content to be lieutenant or insist on being commander. Kiir’s control of South Sudan has clearly solidified. Having withstood the early challenges of his first three years in office, he has nevertheless failed to initiate programmes of political reform and civil rejuvenation in the nascent nation.

Kiir, meanwhile, has alienated many of his cadres and comrades in arms within the ruling SPLM itself. Last week, Kiir expressed grave concerns that a “parallel government” that would be headed by Machar would be “shame itself”, as he put it.

Humanitarian agencies and international human rights groups have questioned the enforced ceasefire. Jan Egeland, a former United Nations aid chief and now head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) was candid and blunt: “We’re very, very concerned that there’s more and more killings along ethnic lines.”

“The gruesome slaughtering of defenceless civilians is as bad as in Syria, in Somalia, as elsewhere. The whole point here is that it can be avoided, it should be avoided, it must be avoided,” the NRC head stated categorically.

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