Is there hope for peace in South Sudan?

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South Sudan’s civil war is supposed to be over. In April, after more than two years of conflict that killed tens of thousands of people, the opposition leader, Riek Machar, returned to Juba with nearly 1,400 troops to resume his post as the vice president to his wartime rival, President Salva Kiir.

To steady South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, Kiir and Machar formed a transitional government, and for months soldiers from both sides of the conflict endured a tense coexistence in Juba.

Then, on July 7, a checkpoint shoot out between the rival sides ended in the deaths of five soldiers who were loyal to the president. The next day, gunfire erupted at the presidential palace as Kiir and Machar were meeting inside.

By July 10, heavy artillery could be heard all over Juba as the two sides fell back to their old war footing and took up arms once again. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians lost lives in the crossfire.

A cease-fire agreed upon last month has largely held across the capital. But Machar maintains the recent fighting was part of a deliberate plot against him and his soldiers. He still fears for his safety, he said, and was in hiding at an undisclosed location not far from Juba.

Towards the end of the month, Kiir issued a statement calling for Machar to return to the capital, and asked for a response within 48 hours. The statement, however, did not clarify what would happen if the vice president failed to do so.

Machar has said he would return to Juba only when other nations in the region send troops here to serve as a buffer.

At an African Union summit in Rwanda, representatives of Machar accused Kiir’s government of targeting opposition members, saying that the army had used helicopter gunships to destroy Machar’s residence during the clashes.

The African Union has called for the deployment of regional forces in South Sudan, with a stronger mandate than that of the approximately 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops already stationed here. But Kiir has said he will not allow additional international forces.

The peace plan that officially ended the war, which called on the former rivals to work together, appears to be unravelling.

Machar’s troops have been driven out of Juba, leaving Kiir’s forces in control of the capital. Since then, some opposition members — while serving as ministers in the transitional government — have faced intimidation and even assault.

“The transitional government cannot operate under the current situation of intimidation,” Machar has said. “People are fearing for their lives, and the president cannot protect me. After all, it was started by me being targeted.”

With its leader in hiding, the opposition has become increasingly fractured. Some of those loyal to Machar have accused Kiir’s government of trying to unilaterally appoint the mining minister, Taban Deng Gai, who represented Machar during last year’s peace negotiations, as the new head of the opposition.

“The idea of unity of command has always been fictitious in the context of South Sudan; that applies to Riek Machar and to Salva Kiir as well,” said Harry Verhoeven, a South Sudan expert and professor of government at Georgetown University. “As we saw during the war, sometimes their generals take command on their own. That’s one of the big problems in general with the peace process.”

The situation is also tense outside Juba. Deadly skirmishes have continued to erupt in several states since the peace agreement was signed last year. In the northeast, where much of the civil war fighting occurred, the government is warning militias not to take up arms in response to the clashes in the capital.

Civilians shouldn’t get involved because “the conflict is between rival militaries, and there are political dimensions,” said Lul Ruai Koang, an army spokesman loyal to Kiir, warning that government would launch air strikes if civilians in the north began to mobilise.

Many residents of Juba say the politics behind the recent bloodshed are perplexing and, ultimately, beside the point. They are simply frustrated with a government that, they say, has repeatedly failed to ensure peace and stability for its people.

While the streets of the capital are lively once more, tensions still remain. Thousands of people remain displaced by the latest round of fighting. The smell of dead bodies still wafts through some of the worst-hit areas. There has been an uptick in robberies; abandoned homes, as well as the World Food Program’s main warehouse, which stores more than 4,000 tons of food for emergency assistance, have been looted. (NYT)

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