South Sudan: Is Peace Possible Without Rebel Leader Machar?

hildren look on questioningly as their colleague cries. The children are part of the many refugees at the Pagirinya Refugee settlement in Adjumani, near Uganda’s border with South Sudan.
16 August 2017

Cape Town — Four years into the South Sudan crisis, a solution is yet to be found. Gruesome crimes continue, with millions displaced and hundreds of thousands facing famine, according to numerous reports from Human Rights Watch. The group also points an accusing finger at both government and rebel leaders.

Various attempts by regional leaders to come up with lasting solutions to the conflict have often met with complications. The split that exist within the rebel camp is not making matters easier.

A three-day Igad Council of Ministers in July aiming to establish realistic timelines for the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement failed to come up with solutions. Brazille Musumba, the Igad communications and media advisor, said the dynamics have changed with many splits within the government and the rebels since the signing of the agreement in 2015. It will be necessary therefore to accommodate the new players who have so far come on the scene.

Attempts to unite the rebel factions ahead of the reconciliation talks in Arusha took place in Entebbe under the auspices of Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni - and finally saw three major SPLM groups (SPLM-In Government, SPLM-In Opposition and SPLM of Former Detainees) signing a reconciliation agreement on July 27, 2017.  According to sources, there were several factors pushing those in the opposition to agree to the reunification talks. These included the lack of a unifying opposition figure and economic hardship most former government officials in opposition are facing abroad.

President Salva Kirr was particularly encouraged that Rebecca Garang, widow to John Garang, one of SPLM's founding fathers, agreed to participate in the process. But no sooner than that was achieved, another split within Riek Machar's group emerged. On the day of the signing, Machar's group issued a strongly worded statement from its headquarters in Pagak, signed by Mabior Garang Mabior, chairman of SPLM National Committee for Information and Public Relations, warning that the Entebbe process was born out of President Salva Kiir's "forum shopping" and was "a mockery of the peace process."

Even if the promises made in Entebbe are kept, the road ahead is rocky. The Igad Council of Ministers recently launched the High Level Revitalisation Forum to be implemented in September. It involves revising the August 2015 peace agreement to come up with realistic timelines for implementation. The regional block agreed that all opposition groups including Riek Machar's representatives and ideas will be welcome but for the time being, Riek Machar cannot attend the meeting planned for September 2017. Civil society activists say this decision will ensure that South Sudan "remains engulfed in war". They argue that what is needed is an all-inclusive process, one that will include not only Machar but people like former foreign minister Lam Akol and renegade General Thomas Cirillo.

And while these discussions are taking place, thousands of civilians are being forced out of their communities and homes - and soldiers from both sides are abusing innocent civilians. The regional authority and those searching for a solution must leave no stone unturned to bring back peace and unity in a country that has known little stability since independence, and the continued isolation of rebel leader Riek Machar may not be the ideal solution to the crisis.

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