Washington, DC — With as many as 1.5 million people displaced by conflict and a worsening humanitarian situation, South Sudan's former Vice President Riek Machar has turned down President Salva Kiir's latest peace offer – to incorporate the rebel leader into a transitional unity government prior to elections set for next year.
Three days ago, amid renewed fighting in several areas, United Nations forces reported rescuing around 400 civilians who fled fierce fighting around the government-held town of Bentiu. A United Nations compound there is sheltering around 50,000 displaced people in its facilities ill-equipped for the influx.
Machar told the Voice of America that he still demands direct talks with the government instead of the plan by Igad – the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development – which was tasked by its east African member governments with mediating a solution.
Igad wants South Sudanese civil society – non-governmental and religious organizations – involved in the peace process, to broaden the constituency for achieving and maintaining peace, a position supported by the South Sudan government. Machar rejects that approach, saying that his representatives and the government should formulate a power-sharing agreement between themselves.
Sandra Bulling, a communications officer for the international aid and development organization CARE, was in Bentiu last week, where she said conditions for the internally displaced people are grim and that the rainy season has caused additional hardship. "Our nutrition center was flooded," she said, "meaning malnourished children and their mothers did not get any support that day."
Also last week, in a rare field visit by the UN Security Council to a conflict area, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said 50,000 children were threatened with starvation in the coming months. UN officials and human rights organizations say both sides in the conflict block essential food deliveries by humanitarian organizations.
President Kiir, meeting with journalists in Washington DC during the U.S. Africa Summit this month, blamed the crisis on the rebel fighters. "I don't know when the suffering will stop," he said. "But if the warring parties would agree to stop fighting, automatically it will end the suffering, because the humanitarian assistance would flow to the people who are in need."
The president voiced strong support for the Igad-supervised peace process in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "I personally traveled to Addis Ababa in May and signed the ceasefire on 9th May," Kirr said. "Unfortunately, within two days the ceasefire was violated by the forces of Riek Machar…I came back in June, on the 10th. We signed another ceasefire."
Kiir said that he is a forgiving person and bears "no grudge" against Machar, but he complained that Machar is not in control of rebel forces on the ground. "I said in front of Igad and all those present that Machar claims that he has forces, but he is not in command of those forces…This is why there is no cessation of hostilities." He challenged Machar to return to South Sudan to exert his influence for peace – and to prepare to run in the upcoming national elections, if he wants to contest them.
In several recent statements and interviews, Machar has said Kiir should have no place in the country's government, despite his overwhelming election as South Sudan's leader. Machar charges that the government is practicing ethnic cleansing against the Nuer group, to which he belongs.
"What would Salva [Kiir] present to the people as the programme to unite the people?" Machar is quoted by Sudan Tribune in an article on Friday. "He committed genocide, he committed mass killing - what programme would he talk about? Nothing."
President Kiir acknowledged that both Nuer and Dinka, his own ethnic group, have engaged in violence against each other. He also cites crime and lawlessness as common problems in the young nation, which voted for independence from Sudan in 2011.
But he said that his government has tried to stop ethnic killings. "I appealed to the people – anybody who is my supporter – don't attempt to kill any Nuer person," Kiir said. "It is not the tribe who rebelled; it is Riek Machar."
And in the nearly hour-long conversation with journalists in Washington, Kirr insisted that the conflict is, at heart, not tribal but is a struggle for power. He pointed to destruction in the city of Bor, which is the capital of Riek Machar's home state of Unity, one of the country's oil-rich regions.
"When he [Machar] was killing people in his own home state – people have to flee, they ran to where I come from, my state. If there was a tribal conflict, why would the Nuer people run to a Dinka state? People received them, and they are now there in their tens of thousands."
The president reiterated that the peace process led by the Igad negotiators was the way forward. "We are committed to the peace process under the Igad," he said. "We are also committed, as a government, to humanitarian work."
South Sudan Finance Minister, Aggrey Tisa Sabuni, who traveled with Kiir to Washington, told AllAfrica that the president had established a committee to look into ramifications of the conflict when it broke out in December. The results of the investigation, he said, reinforced the government's insistence on the regionally brokered peace process.
The minister headed the sub-committee on financial and economic issues. "Within two weeks," he said, "we predicted that there would be a terrible reduction in government revenue – both oil and non-oil. We predicted that there would be loss of human capital. We predicted that there would be dislocation of economic enterprises. This has come to pass."
Asked if he can be optimistic about South Sudan's future in such dire circumstances, the finance minister said there is no choice but to press ahead. "We're in the middle of a tornado," he said. "It is destructive while it lasts, but it will blow past, and development will resume."