South Sudan's President Salva Kiir added impetus to the impending formation of a Transitional Government in Juba next month with a visit to Kampala that signalled a growing optimism that lasting peace could finally come to the world’s youngest nation.
South Sudan’s neighbours—Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia—are pushing to find a lasting solution to the hostilities in Juba, restore security, reduce the refugee burden, and boost trade and investment.
President Kiir on Thursday met his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni in Entebbe, where they discussed the implementation of the revitalised peace pact and its challenges.
President Museveni said in a tweet after the meeting that President Kiir had briefed him on the implementation of the South Sudanese peace agreement.
“Despite a few challenges, there is progress. I urge all parties to work towards peace and stability," the Ugandan leader tweeted.
Even as neighbours push President Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to reach a political deal, it also emerged that the international community is pressing the parties towards the same goal.
President Kiir and Dr Machar are expected to travel to the Vatican next week for a meeting with Pope Francis, who has been pressing for reconciliation among the warring parties in South Sudan.
Pope Francis, who met President Kiir at the Vatican in March, and is believed to have invited him for this coming week’s meeting with Dr Machar, has over the past four years kept South Sudan on his agenda.
The Catholic Church has promised to contribute towards rebuilding the country’s dilapidated education and health sectors as well as support reconstruction in South Sudan. But it wants peace first.
Pressure is also coming from the United Nations to have President Kiir and signatories to the September 2018 peace agreement keep to their commitment and ensure a lasting peace, even as the Troika —the UK, the US, and Norway—who financed it remain sceptical.
The upcoming meeting with the Pope is being seen as offering yet another opportunity to cement the Revitalised Peace Agreement.
James Morgan, South Sudan’s ambassador to the African Union, said the Pope had found it fit to invite the other peace partners, whose endorsement will be vital to the agreement, especially the proposed five vice presidents in the Government of National Unity.
James Oryema, Dr Machar’s representative in Kenya, said the Pope is using religious leverage to build confidence in the political leaders to implement the peace deal.
“This would be the third time Pope Francis will be praying for President Kiir to give peace a chance. In 2015, while in Uganda, Pope Francis prayed for President Kiir to implement the peace agreement but it collapsed,” Mr Oryema said.
Unlike the 2015 peace agreement, when the region left South Sudan to its own devices after signing the deal, the country’s neighbours led by the two guarantors—Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Museveni of Uganda—as well as Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, are now keener on finding a lasting peace under the September 2018 agreement.
“The region is embracing peace as opposed to conflict so that we can fully achieve regional political and economic integration as envisaged in the African Union Agenda 2063.
“South Sudan hopes that countries under the Intergovernmental Authority on Development should continue to work together in the interest of our region,” said Mr Morgan.
Presidents al-Bashir and Museveni are seen as the two main actors who helped resolve the outstanding issues during the negotiations for peace in South Sudan, even though critics accused them of crafting a deal that favours their economic and political interests.
For Kampala, a return of peace in Juba would be a boon for traders, who had been supplying food and manufactured goods to South Sudan before civil war broke out in 2013.
South Sudan was Uganda's main export market until the civil war began and many Ugandan traders, mainly grain dealers, lost their products or did not get paid by South Sudanese government.
The Ugandan government offered to pay the traders and send the bill to the Juba administration—as a loan. But 13 of the 23 companies, whose payment parliament approved in April 2018, have yet to be paid. Juba insists the claims are being verified.
South Sudan is the largest importer of Ugandan goods, and more than 150,000 Ugandan traders operate across the common border, generating an estimated $900 million in business per year.
Kenya, which has invested heavily in Juba’s banking and real estate sectors, is also keen on finding a lasting peace that can facilitate thousands of its citizens to work and do business in South Sudan.
Kenya is also the gateway to the sea for South Sudan, whose imports account for an eighth of throughput at the Mombasa port.
The latest Kenya Ports Authority report on port cargo movement shows that Sudanese imports through the port of Mombasa increased to 734,132 tonnes in 2018, from 673,752 tonnes in 2017.
Nairobi hopes that a return to peace will steady that growth and increase the volume of containers moving inland on its newly-built standard gauge railway.
Kenyans who fled the violence are also looking to return to South Sudan to rebuild their businesses.
Embattled Sudanese President al-Bashir has been pushing for the implementation of the peace deal to boost his country’s economy through a resumption of oil production.
He is keen to see South Sudan resume full capacity in oil production of 350,000 barrels per day from the current 140,000 barrels per day.
Sudan earns substantial foreign currency from transporting South Sudan oil through the pipeline to Port Sudan for export, while Juba continues to pay $3 billion to Khartoum in phases as compensation of the loss of 75 per cent of the oil wells when the country became independent in 2011.
In September last year, Ugandan academic Prof Mahmood Mamdani caused a stir in South Sudan when he said that the September peace agreement was only meant to benefit Uganda and Sudan.
“South Sudan is on its way to becoming an informal protectorate of Sudan and Uganda. By formally acknowledging them as ‘guarantors,’ the agreement recognises their strategic role in determining the future of South Sudan: Ugandan troops are physically present to support President Kiir’s faction, and Sudan provides critical support to opposition groups, including those led by Dr Machar,” wrote Prof Mamdani in an article published in the New York Times.
But the UN is determined to see the deal implemented. The head of the UN Mission in South Sudan and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, has been touring the region for the past two months to encourage the international community to get behind the peace process and push it forward.
On April 4, the UN announced $11 million of emergency aid to help displaced families return home.
The funding from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund targets 268,000 women, men and children who had been internally displaced by the conflict. The money will cater for food, shelter and other basic necessities.
Sceptics however feel that South Sudan still faces multiple implementation challenges. The provision to train and form a united national army within the eight-month pre-transition period is yet to be implemented.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group proposed a delay in the formation of the transitional government after the eight months pre-transition period to address challenges such as security.
Besides, it has not been possible to get the armed groups that refused to sign the agreement to do so. Lack of strong external guarantors and financiers also remains a challenge.
John Pen, who represented the civil society during the peace talks in Khartoum, told The EastAfrican that Juba is desperate for funds after the Troika refused to release money without a political guarantee of a lasting peace.