The South Sudan peace rigmarole has become fairly predictable. Raise public expectations by agreeing to something you don’t completely believe in, sign to deadlines you have no intention of honouring, and then find an excuse to wriggle out of your commitments.
That was likely the view of the many of people in South Sudan as the parties to the conflict drifted towards another deadline for establishment of a transitional government this weekend. Days to a crucial meeting in Addis, President Salva Kiir made a big concession when he climbed down from his desire for a 32 state South Sudan to 10, as had been demanded by former vice president Riek Machar.
Machar did not appear impressed by this overture, and has instead taken issue with the three special administrative areas that Kiir seems keen to maintain. This ping-pong is not new and suggests that the main protagonists do not appreciate the devastating impact of the conflict on ordinary people. They are reluctant peace makers and whatever progress has been achieved through dialogue is down to the external pressure imposed by neighbours and the international community.
It should be impressed upon Messrs Kiir and Machar that missing another deadline is not an option for the masses bearing the brunt of the conflict and February 22 must not be another false start.
Going by what has happened in the past achieving durable peace in South Sudan is going to require 360 degree mindset change among the South Sudan’s political leaders. So far, their individual interests appear to be substituted for national interest in the big game of ego play.
There is no plausible reason why millions should be denied security of abode, a functional State with working health and educational services, just because the political class has refused to arrive at a consensus. Just like any other country, South Sudan should be open for business to both its nationals and any other interested parties if it expects to gain acceptance at the table of nations.
Although protracted, the South Sudan problem is not intractable. What is required is a change of tack. A common approach in such matters would have the parties begin by defining those areas on which they have common agreement. They can then stack these against the objections to get an accurate sense of how far apart they remain.
It would be naive for anybody to expect that the transitional government should commence only after all differences have been ironed out. This is impractical first because differences are normal in any setting and cannot be anticipated. The transitional government should be seen as a process rather than an end in itself. It is an instrument for managing present and future differences of opinion.
The key for the parties is to learn to see differences of opinion for what they are — in reality a mere divergence in points of view.
Since South Sudan’s peace process has been largely externally driven, the international community must see to it that this new ray of hope is not extinguished.