South Sudan citizens are, once again, suspended between fear and hope as Dr Riek Machar, the vice-president designate under the September 2018 compromise peace and power sharing agreement, dithers on his anticipated return to Juba.
The leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement in Opposition SPLM-IO has requested that the commencement date for a Transitional Government that is supposed to be sworn in on November 12, be pushed back by another six months.
His SPLM-IO demands that the cantonment, screening, training and reunification of the armed groups as well as the number of States the country should have, and the entrenchment of the September 2018 agreement, be met before he can join the transitional government.
Manawa Peter Gatkuoth, the SPLM-IO’s deputy spokesman, observes that the country will fall back into armed conflict if the security arrangements agreed upon are not actualised.
Coming after a frustrating six years of largely unsuccessful attempts at peace-making, a war-weary regional and international community is less inclined to indulge Dr Machar.
Capitalising on that, President Salvar Kiir has indicated that he will go ahead to form the Transitional Government with or without Dr Machar, come November 12.
Isolating Machar and going ahead without him is a tempting proposition for both President Kiir and his regional backers, but it might not unlock the Sudan conundrum.
While its proponents are informed by the seeming progress towards committing SPLM-IO to a firm peace deal after Machar’s movements were curtailed, first by South Africa and later Sudan; following the 2016 attempt on his life in Juba by former SPLA chief of Staff and now renegade General Paul Malong, that strategy is fraught with inherent risks.
Under the revitalised peace agreement however, the Transitional Government cannot be such without Machar. It designates him first vice president of South Sudan as an individual, rather than SPLM/A-IO, the organisation he leads into the transitional arrangement.
His isolation will not only dent the TG’s legitimacy but also risks rupturing the semblance of peace that has held as the protagonists waited through the latest negotiations.
Dr Machar should be given the benefit of the doubt given that in the past six years he has on two separate occasions survived attacks in Juba.
His fears about the security arrangement on the ground are a reflection of the complex ethnic matrix in South Sudan and should not be taken lightly.
President Kiir’s determination and apparent rush to push ahead with a transitional government minus his co-principal is only likely to reinforce Dr Machar’s fears.
It is therefore necessary to put in place confidence building measures by demonstrating positive movement on key issues such as the cantonment of forces and reconstitution of the National Guard.
The six months extension that Dr Machar seeks may be frustrating and even seem unreasonable. But its inconveniences pales in comparison to the consequences for South Sudan and its neighbours, a resumption of unrestrained violence would bring.