EDITORIAL: Giving peace a chance in South Sudan

Saturday June 23 2018

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar in Addis Ababa on June 20, 2018. PHORO | COURTESY 

By The EastAfrican
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Nearly two years after they last met face to face, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his rival Dr Riek Machar this week sat down in Addis Ababa for another shot at peace in their troubled country.

Just like previous meetings, the latest one came on the back of threats of UN sanctions against key leaders across the divide. While the event was highly anticipated, it is difficult to see what it changes in material terms.

For one, the meeting happened in the usual atmosphere of mistrust. Until the last minute, nobody was sure President Kiir would show up after he had disapproved of Addis as a venue.

The pictures coming out of Addis were also telling, showing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy embracing Machar as Salva Kiir looked on stone-faced.

Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition spokesman Mabior Garang de Mabior probably described the prospects accurately when in a statement on Thursday, he said the meeting was cordial and broad but unlikely to deliver a workable peace agreement in the short term.

Those are hardly the words anybody would have wanted to hear at the end of the meeting but they are perhaps, a reminder of the need for moderation.

First of all, they present the meeting for what it really was – a gesture of goodwill, upon which future efforts can build. They also reflect the entrenched positions that have characterised the on-an- off South Sudan peace talks.

Mabior says the guns need to fall silent before meaningful dialogue can take place while according to Kiir’s camp, the president is not ready to work with Machar in a transitional government. To some extent, these concomitant statements show the need for both the main protagonists and the international community to think beyond Machar and Kiir if a viable formula for peace is to be found.

Kiir and Machar need to become more sensitive to the needs of ordinary people who have borne the brunt of the conflict. More than half the people inside South Sudan are suffering extreme hunger and face violence on a daily basis while millions more have been forced out of the country or are internally displaced.

Despite all this, South Sudan is not short of inspiration and should draw on its own history for a durable peace.

The SPLM was able to reach a settlement with Khartoum despite the decades of bloody animosity with the North. The failed peace pacts of 2015 and 2017 are not completely devoid of value because through them, one can at least isolate the sticking points and address them.

In the absence of any commitment to the next course of action, the regional and international community need to maintain the pressure on the leaders but they need to think beyond Machar and Kiir.

The conflict in South Sudan has become so fragmented that it is able to continue whatever happens to the leaders of the major factions.

That probably explains why the detention of Machar in South Africa has not in any way abated the fighting on the ground. If anything, the fractured nature of the conflict means that there are many more actors that need to be brought on board and have their fears addressed.

What South Sudan needs for deliverance is a neutral figure who does not threaten any of the opposing factions, to give the country a chance at peace.