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December 2013 found thousands of South Sudanese nationals in no mood to celebrate. Conflict had broken out in Juba and was swiftly spreading to the other parts of the country. What started out as a fight between members of the presidential guard soon morphed into a failed/ foiled coup d’état and then into a national crisis before turning into a regional mess. Military personnel had taken over the streets, President Salva Kiir had issued his press statement in full military regalia, his former deputy-Riek Machar-had gone into hiding, the government had arrested and detained some of the leaders allied to Riek Machar, hundreds had already died and thousands left homeless.
The accounts from the witnesses were gory to say the least; tanks flattening houses, targeted killings and a wind of fear blowing across the land. Media was there to cover the regional mess. Reporters had flown to Juba from the Kenyan Air force base in Embakasi with the army to cover the repatriation of Kenyans who were stranded in South Sudan. Of all the things seen there – from the burning houses, the wounded people with dried up blood on their clothes, the lorry transporting stones lying on its side to block the road, images of the charred remains of burnt animals or the sad but indifferent hideous spots where someone’s life ended, nothing beats an incident that happened on the plane a few minutes after take-off on the journey back to Kenya, with some returnees on board. A man, most likely in his mid thirties, got sick mid-air and vomited on the two people next to him. A splattering wet mixture of brown everything. He smiled at the two guys. A genuine smile. The two guys laughed back. Genuine laughter. They were not trying to be polite. They just didn’t care. They were glad to be coming home, out of South Sudan. Out of a burning house. And that is all that mattered. They were happy not to be part of the dead or the soon to be dead.
A couple of weeks later, on the January 23, 2014, a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed. The idea was to stop further deaths, among other things. On September 2, 2015, a few days after the signing of the Compromise Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, and countable failed peace agreements after the January 2014 one, this writer sat down with Ambassador John Andruga Duku, former head of mission of the government of South Sudan in Kenya and the current Special Envoy on Peace for the Peace Agreement, for a chat on what the new peace deal means, what the people of South Sudan feel about the new peace deal, when the world should expect peace to return to South Sudan and on just how many people have lost their lives since December 2013. On the latter, he suggested that the vultures and hyenas were better placed to offer casualty figures than the UN or international media.
After all that has happened, it appears that this agreement could work. Publicly, President Salva Kiir is showing enough commitment and political goodwill to see the deal through even though he and his team have reservations on 16 issues outlined in the 12-page dossier. Riek Machar and his team, on the other hand, seem to be getting the better end of the deal.
“Let me stop you right there,” Interjects Amb. John Duku. “The content of this agreement is modelled in favour of Dr Riek Machar. This agreement, this document, in fact it is not even fair to call it an agreement. An agreement is an understanding between two people. This one is not. This agreement has been imposed on the government by Igad (Intergovernmental Authority on Development).”
As per the content of the agreement, there shall be the formation of a Transitory Government of National Unity – which in essence invites Riek Machar back into the government, together with his lieutenants; the rebel army should be incorporated into the national forces; Juba should be demilitarised with any signs of the armed forces being after a 25-km radius from the city; and foreign forces (Uganda Defense Forces mainly) should leave the country in 45 days, among others. The feeling, that this deal is weighted more on the government’s end than on the rebel’s end is shared by many people, including President Salva Kiir.
In his speech after the peace deal was signed on the August 26, 2015, he welcomed regional leaders, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to a ‘‘decisive turning point in our country, where presumably we have only one of two options; the option of an imposed peace or the option of a continued war, since the best option of the negotiated peace deal for a just and lasting peace is no longer on the agenda of some of the world’s and regional powers.”
Further on in his speech, he warned those leaders and the world leaders that they will be contributing to the failure of the peace building process should the negotiations be handled in such a one-sided manner. Twenty hours after the agreement came into effect, Riek Machar claimed that government forces had attacked some of his troops. In response, speaking on phone from Juba, a government official said that the opposite was true. Such has been the dance between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar.
Many South Sudanese nationals believe that President Salva Kiir has been backed into a corner and given no option but to sign the deal. As of April, the government of the United States of America has dangled deal signing on one hand and isolation on the other. Talks of travel bans, freezing of assets of key leaders in South Sudan, an arms embargo and economic sanctions from the US government and world bodies have acted as the ultimate inducement-cum-ultimatum to Salva Kiir.
And President Kiir is not the only one “not pleased” with the stick hanging over his head; Duku believes that an ultimatum can’t be given as an option. To him, a repeat of the previous failed peace agreements is inevitable unless the reservations made by the President are understood and handled critically and consideration to their effect made. China, a major trading partner with South Sudan feels the same way, albeit, without the need to be so civil about it. In April this year, after the US issued the first threat of sanctions against South Sudan, China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi criticised the threat by the US and the UN as being silly. “At this moment, when the two sides are negotiating for a solution, you talk about imposing sanctions – frankly I don’t see the logic behind this,” he had wondered out loud.
On the streets of Nairobi, a young South Sudanese national who is taking his Masters degree at the University of Nairobi smiles at the idea of this deal working this time around. It is a sinister smile, like he knows something the rest of the world does not know.
“There has been conflict of interest from January 2014. Conflict of interest is the reason the first deal failed and it is the reason this one will probably fail too. There are individuals in South Sudan and in the region who see peace as a threat to their own survival,” says Duot Yak.
The personal interest he is referring to here is in regard to the fact that some members of Salva Kiir’s government see a coalition government as the boat that will see them off their political careers. The squabbles he is referring to are either with regard to the general feeling that many people within the government are not pleased with the current leadership or with regard to the fact that top rebel commanders recently broke off from Riek Machar and denounced him as their leader. Duku believes that going forward, these breakaway rebel commanders should be included in the negotiations, and otherwise they will rock the boat.
Somehow, this deal should work. This is what everyone wants. Its biggest figurehead is that a permanent cease fire and transitional security arrangements section of the deal could stop the unwarranted deaths and destruction; the only issues with it is the incorporation of the rebels into the national army, a unified command of the National Defence Forces of South Sudan (NDFSS) – an organisation that, according to the dossier containing the reservations by Salva Kiir, does not exist. He only recognises Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The next two big things out of the deal are the formation of a government of national unity made up of both the rebel leaders and detainees and leaders of government, and lastly the establishment of a Commission for Truth Reconciliation and Healing.
The future that the people of South Sudan want is one without conflict. Currently, however, after seven failed cease fire agreements in the past 20 months, the country just read its 2015/2016 budget while fighting continued in Upper Nile state in the back drop of the deal that was signed on the 26th of August 2015.
For Duku, people should not deceive themselves that sanctions or threats of sanctions can lead to peace. “We should tone down the language of threats and encourage the language of engagement.”
Country of a million martrys
Igad members and regional leaders should revisit the agreement and go over the reservations made by Salva Kiir – the same reservations that US categorically said it does not recognise. Regional leaders on the other hand have their own words for this peace deal. President Uhuru Kenyatta said that there was no such thing as a perfect agreement while President Yoweri Museveni declared the conflict in South Sudan as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Still, South Sudan, according to Salva Kiir, is a country of over a million martyrs; people who value glory, honour and liberty over life. What Salva Kiir does not say is just how much leaders in South Sudan value power – the one thing that started the conflict in the first place. But who knows, perhaps December 2015 will find people of South Sudan in a mood to celebrate.^