Washington, DC — Despite fierce fighting in South Sudan, efforts to address unresolved issues between the young nation and its northern neighbor Sudan continue, former South African President Thabo Mbeki said during an interview in Washington, DC last week.
"The conflict in South Sudan has not changed the commitment of the two governments to implement what they've agreed," said Mbeki, who has led mediations between Sudan and South Sudan on behalf of the African Union. "We must continue to focus on that to ensure that the agreements are implemented."
After years of war between Sudan's government and rebel armies in the south of the country, an internationally supervised referendum led to South Sudan's independence in July 2011. The African Union established a high-level panel, headed by Mbeki , to mediate unresolved issues between the two countries and prevent a resumption of the decades-long conflict. The panel also includes former heads-of-state Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria and Pierre Buyoya of Burundi.
In October, two months before current internal power struggle erupted in the south, Mbeki welcomed the progress in the talks between the two countries. He called the "troublesome, problematic" issue of the oil-rich Abyei region the major outstanding question still to be settled.
In an interview with AllAfrica, Mbeki also welcomed the cessation-of-hostilities agreement in the south between the South Sudan government and troops led by former Vice President Riek Machar, brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa (IGAD).
"Fighting had to stop," Mbeki said, before any progress can be made on a durable political solution. The widespread killing and destruction of infrastructure in the country "which is already very poor", he noted, has further entrenched hostility and mistrust. The root of the conflict is political division within the ruling SPLM (Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement), he said, and this affects the region's future.
"One of the principles agreed between Sudan and South Sudan when negotiating the bilateral agreements was that both were committed to assist each other to become viable states," Mbeki said. "So the question is: What we do to make South Sudan a viable state?"
"We need to address the question of why people resorted to guns in the first place - to ensure that this doesn't happen again," Mbeki said. Discussion about the country's future is "not a matter that you can leave only to the ruling party," he said. "You've got to ensure that the country as a whole gets involved."
Speaking to international journalists by video conference from the U.S. State Department on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration feels a responsibility to help South Sudan "avoid going back to what was once the longest war in the history of Africa.
"The United States "helped give birth" to the new nation of South Sudan and now wants to help "prevent the chaos and the genocide" that can result from spreading violence, Kerry said."We all have an interest – and everybody has an interest – in not letting that happen."
Kerry said he had personally spoken with both South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Machar, his chief rival, as well as with the Ethiopian and Ugandan governments and others "in efforts to try to prevent the deterioration."
Later in the same conversation with journalists, who mostly participated from Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield was asked if the U.S. government supported Uganda's decision to deploy troops in support of President Kiir's government. She said the Ugandans were asked by the South Sudan government and by IGAD "to provide security for important infrastructure," including the airport and the road between Uganda and the capital Juba.
With the cessation of hostilities now agreed, she said, "we, along with others, call on Uganda as well as other governments to pull back so that we can move the peace process forward and give the people of South Sudan what they have fought for for more than 30 years."
"We're vested in this country's success," she said. "We want to see the people of South Sudan who voted for peace three years ago achieve that peace and move forward in prosperity."