Fresh hope for South Sudan, but leaders had to be pushed to agree

Saturday February 22 2020

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in Juba on December 17, 2019. Under pressure, Kiir and Machar agreed to form a transitional government of national unity. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AGGREY MUTAMBO
By AGGREY MUTAMBO
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FRED OLUOCH
By FRED OLUOCH
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The US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, had a clear brief when he arrived in Addis Ababa on February 7: To ensure that South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar agree to form a unity government.

He found frustrated negotiators at the African Union headquarters, where efforts to bring together the two key protagonists were going on in parallel with the continental assembly. The February 22 deadline to form a transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) was fast approaching, yet President Kiir and Dr Machar had failed to agree on the vexing issue of the number of states under the envisaged coalition regime.

Mr Nagy’s terse message to the parties was that they either compromise and form a government or refuse to agree and bear the dubious mark of being peace spoilers.

As South Sudan finally forms the TGNoU today, diplomats familiar with the lengthy negotiations have recounted to The EastAfrican the carrot and stick manoeuvres that were employed to reconcile the two.

On that evening, gathered in one of the AU meeting halls, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok held tense discussions after President Kiir and Dr Machar failed to agree once more.

The two were known as the co-guarantors for the South Sudan peace mediation by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), meant to safeguard the 2018 peace deal. At this point, Dr Machar who had earlier insisted on having a South Sudan divided into the old colonial districts of 23 administrative states, agreed to revert to 10 states, the number that the country had at independence in 2011. President Kiir, on the other hand, refused to budge, insisting on either 32 States or more “because the people want them.”

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An Igad Communique issued in the wake of the stalemate showed the bloc had agreed to pass the ball back to President Kiir, to go consult his people and report to the bloc by last Saturday. In a way, Igad was washing its hands off the issue, and President Kiir was now firmly in the spotlight.

“President Kiir thought he would control the final deal on States. But in truth, the region was getting fed up. There was sustained pressure from the region and the Troika,” a diplomat at Igad told The EastAfrican, referring to the donors; US, UK and Norway as they are jointly known.

In public, Mr Nagy said donors would not accept leaders who do not choose compromise, and Igad warned it will no longer sponsor an extension for talks.

“Refusing to compromise undermines peace and risks the ceasefire,” Mr Nagy warned amid the fiasco. “South Sudan’s leaders should put the people first. The government and opposition parties must resolve any impediments to forming a national unity government.”

One threat that donors made was to escalate sanctions on South Sudan’s leaders, although some argued it could be further penalty to civilians who have had no role in the stalemate. The US has already sanctioned several warlords affiliated with President Kiir and Dr Machar for “spoiling” peace.

So the discussion turned to incentives. If President Kiir and Dr Machar formed a government, they could be helped with the formal establishment of governing structures and financial support. The problem though, another diplomat argued, was President Kiir’s insistence on 32 states to avoid antagonising his support base.

“There was a threat that more factions could emerge from the SPLM. That could complicate the transition. For Kiir, that could weaken his position in the system,” the official told The EastAfrican, referring to the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

When President Kiir finally made an overnight about-turn, he managed to tell the losing governors the situation would only be temporary and that more states would be established to accommodate them. Still, some senior officials in the SPLM defected to the South Sudan United Front, a rebel movement led by former military chief Paul Malong, who has yet to sign the peace agreement.

Could that threaten the new peace government? Maybe. Mr Malong is sanctioned by both the UN and the US but has remained a free soul in the region.

On Friday, Mr James P Morgan, South Sudan’s ambassador to the African Union, denied reports that pressure had been applied on President Kiir to change his stance.

“No one pressured the President. He wanted peace, and the people wanted peace. The President knew that even though 32 States were popular, he had to choose peace first,” Mr Morgan said. “We needed this transitional period to come to an end. It has been so long. Once peace is there, the people’s voices will determine how many more states South Sudan should have,” he said.

The transitional government will last for three years before the first ever elections in South Sudan since independence in 2011.

President Kiir yesterday appointed Dr Machar as the first vice president, in an arrangement that will have five vice-presidents chosen from the current government and opposition factions that were signatories to the September 2018 peace agreement.

President Kiir will have to choose between outgoing vice-presidents; Taban Deng Gai and James Wani Igga who takes the second slot. Other signatories such as the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) will have one slot, while a faction of the Former Detainees who have been cooperating with President Kiir will have another slot.

Among the figures in the SSOA—a coalition of nine opposition parties that have expressed interest in the post of the vice-president are former governor of Western Equatoria, Joseph Bakosoro, SSOA secretary-general, Dr Lam Akol, while others are Gen Hussein Abdelbagi and Gabriel Changson Chan.

The widow of Dr John Garang, Rebecca Nyandeng has also been mentioned as a possible vice-president.

The revitalised peace agreement allows the signatories to share 35 ministries based on percentages, 10 deputy ministers and 550 members of parliament during the transitional period.  The pending formation of the transitional government materialised only after President Kiir agreed to revert to the original 10 states, plus three additional administrative areas of Pibor, Ruweng and Abyei, but the security arrangements are not yet complete.

“I have taken this responsibility as the President. My forces will be responsible for security in Juba until the training of the unified forces is completed, and if there are still pending things, we will continue with discussions until we reach an agreement,” President Kiir said in his address to the nation on Thursday.

Diplomats of five European countries, the European Union and Canada, said in a statement that President Kiir made a bold compromise by cutting the 32 states back down to the original 10, but the remaining issues will require further discussion among the parties before and after the formation of the unity government.

“Many challenges also remain with respect to the Transitional Security Arrangements. We encourage parties to engage in these discussions as soon as possible, collaboratively and with a spirit of compromise,” a statement from the foreign diplomats said.

The parties were to form a government in May last year after the eight months of pre-transition period but was extended for six months and another 100 days because of lack of agreement on the number of states and security arrangements.

Mabior Garang de Mabior of the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement in Opposition chairman of the National Committee for Information and Public Relations, said that the formation of the transitional government will not automatically bring peace but was a vehicle through which peace may be delivered.

“If the transitional government fulfils its mandate of implementing the provisions of the negotiated settlement, we shall effortlessly arrive at peace. The formation of government must coincide with the lifting of the state of emergency and the opening of political space in the country,” said Mr Mabior.

Earlier attempts for a transitional government following the 2015 peace agreement broke down in July 2016. 

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Task ahead for transitional government

South Sudan’s new government comes after six years and two months of civil war. But the ground remains shaky because not all critical tasks related to the pre-transition have been met.

The transitional government will last for three years before the first ever elections in South Sudan since independence in 2011.

It will have the task of disarming armed groups and integrating them into a unified force to ensure that the guns remain silent, revive the economy, resettle the displaced and begin the process of national healing.

It will also have to face the challenge of convincing donors and development partners to revive their support, as well as maintaining working relations among different parties. 

South Sudan’s Transitional National Legislative Assembly on Thursday passed the constitutional amendments providing the legal framework needed to revert to 10 states, while the three administrative areas of Pibor, Ruweng and Abyei will be run with the supervision of the centre.

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