South Sudan was on Friday night waiting for a spinning coin to settle from a meeting between President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar, part of efforts to ease tensions stemming from the controversial sacking of some government officials.
Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) secretariat said the meeting had ended with “fruitful results”. Minister of Presidential Affairs Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the two principals discussed the status of the Revitalised Peace Agreement in regards to the recent swapping of the ministries.
“The two principals agreed in good spirit of dialogue and cooperation to convene another meeting at a later date to final amicable solutions on these issues,” said Marial.
President Kiir and Dr Machar met at the presidential palace in Juba after the SPLM-IO kicked off a storm over the sacking of Defence Minister Angelina Teny, who is also Machar’s wife, on March 4.
This development caused such bad blood that Juba watchers worried about a possible slip into civil war. Some Ugandan media reported that President Kiir had earlier in the week reached out to President Yoweri Museveni for military help in case things in Juba spun out of control.
The EastAfrican could not independently verify reports that special forces of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces had been put on standby as Museveni watched the developments in Juba. Sources say Museveni is fatigued by the continual wrangling in Juba and slow progress to peace.
Ms Teny, the most recent cause of the row between the two principals, held the Defence docket as part of the 2018 peace deal, which allocated the portfolio to the SPLM-IO and Interior to Kiir’s side.
Kiir also sacked the Interior man Mahmoud Solomon Agok and swapped the portfolios, appointing his ally to the Defence Ministry.
Later, on March 8 he sacked his ally Mayiik Ayii, the Foreign minister and replaced him with his deputy Deng Dau Deng,without giving reasons.
“It's normal business. People can be relieved and replaced,” his spokesperson Lily Martin Manyiel said.
Experts have been splitting hairs on the implication of the controversial presidential decrees. While the 2018 agreement allocates portfolios to the peace deal parties, it does not explicitly say whether the appointing authority, the head of state, cannot swap the departments. Neither does it say anything about what happens to those who underperform, as alleged in the case of Ms Teny.
“Even Riek Machar was appointed by the president, so the final authority that makes the appointment is the final authority that relieves,” said Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth.
The SPLM-IO wrote a protest letter demanding Teny’s reinstatement of on the grounds that the sacking went against the terms of a peace agreement — which gave the former rebels and other signatories to the September 2018 agreement the leeway to nominate their ministers in the portfolio balance.
But the Friday meeting, initially scheduled for Thursday, was seen by some as a closing of ranks between the two leaders now facing an enemy from within their ranks. Some say Kiir had indeed informed Machar of his decision to axe his wife from the Cabinet.
Analysts and civil society activists who spoke to The EastAfrican warned that the president’s “wrong” move could hurt confidence-building between parties.
“What happened shows how the roadmap (for permanent peace) has begun on the wrong footing. As there is no consensus at the very beginning, how do you expect consensus to continue in the next two years?” said Kuol Nyuon, an associate professor of political science at the University of Juba.
“The crisis between President Kiir and his deputy Machar, especially on the removal of the Defence minister and the Speaker of Jonglei State Transitional Legislative Assembly will definitely affect the roadmap since it was out of the agreement,” he explained, referring to a previous decision to replace a local legislature leader in Jonglei, Amer Ateny Alier. President Kiir revoked her appointment in early January but gave no reasons.
A stark choice
Nicholas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for South Sudan and head the UN mission, UNMISS told UN News in New York that the leaders of South Sudan faced “a stark choice”.
“I think we’re coming to a peak, a fork in the road almost in which what is on offer is completion of the transition in South Sudan culminating in a stable and democratic South Sudan, or more conflict should the wheels come off the transition, or should they fail to make the critical benchmarks set out in the peace agreement,” he said.
He told the Security Council that 2023 is a “make it or break it” year for South Sudan.
“The transition is scheduled to effectively come to an end next year. But, when you look at the tasks that have to be accomplished in order for the transition to be completed next year, most of those tasks for this year – preparation for elections, contact place a month before the elections – it has to take place 18 months or two years beforehand, whether it’s the required voter registration or constituency demarcation. And if they shelve those decisions to 2024, they’re not going to be able to recover the ground which is necessary for them to accomplish some really important objectives.”
Undermine security arrangements
Edmund Yakani, who heads a peace-building Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO), said the stalemate over the Defence ministry will likely undermine the implementation of security arrangements.
“The swapping of the ministries between IO and SPLM may undermine the implementation of the security arrangement,” said Yakani.
“There will be lack of trust and confidence among the parties in driving the transitional security arrangement.”
In reaction to the ongoing tensions, South Sudan peace monitoring body, the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC) encouraged consultation to resolve issues.
“RJMEC takes note of the Presidential Decree of 3 March 2023, announcing the removal of the Minister of Defence and Veteran Affairs, and Minister of Interior, and the swapping of the two ministries between the incumbent government and the SPLM-IO. The body welcomes the decision of the President and the First Vice President to meet and discuss the issue of the removal of the Minister of Defence and Veteran Affairs, and the swapping of the two ministries,” it said in a statement.
Upsetting the roadmap
The commission called on the parties to observe the letter and spirit of the revitalised peace agreement which is founded on collaboration, consultation, and agreement between the Parties.
“If there is a deadlock between the Parties to the Agreement, a referral can be made to RJMEC pursuant to Article 7.11 of the R-ARCSS to engage the Parties to find compromise and/or recommending measures to break the deadlock. With less than 24 months of the extended Transitional Period remaining, it is important that this issue be resolved as soon as possible so that the Peace Agreement can continue to be implemented in a timely manner,” RJMEC said.
Recently, the National Constitution Amendment Committee (NCAC) suspended all its operations due to non-payment of staff by the national government, putting implementation of the roadmap to doubt. The committee of 15 members said they had not been paid for the past three years, adding that they only received initial funds of 0.5 percent out of the total submitted budget in 2020.
The National Transitional Committee and international peace monitors were also not paid. These challenges could paralyse peace efforts.
Throughout the week, various stakeholders were involved in various consultations to prevent the latest disagreement from further upsetting the roadmap to peace.
Chairman of the RJMEC Gen (Rtd) Charles Tai Gituai, told The EastAfrican that his organisation is awaiting the outcome of the Friday talks before decideing on the next move.
Machar’s press secretary Puok Both said that violations of the peace deal are definitely infecting the implementation of the agreement.
“The guarantors, the region, and the international community need to wake up and carry out their role as supervisors and protectors of the agreement. There must be no impunity for those who violate the agreement,” he said.
But there are those who feel that Kiir had actually consulted Machar on the move, also pointing to the fact that the SPLM-IO took no drastic measures aside from a formal protest.
Ms Teny had held the Defence Ministry for three years with little impact on security sector reforms so her sacking was overdue, some say. Indeed, the Kiir side has accused her of poor performance.
The security sector reforms, which were supposed to be completed during the transition period, remain a major challenge. So far, 53,000 troops of the projected total of 83,000 have been unified.
Pope Francis, when he made a three-day visit to South Sudan early last month, urged the leaders not to make the country a “graveyard,” warning that history would judge them for their actions.
"The process of peace and reconciliation requires a new start. Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you do now,” the Pontiff told the two leaders in Juba.
Machar under pressure
According to Akol Miyen Kuol, a political analyst, there are concerns that if President Kiir continues to make unilateral decisions, Dr Machar could come under pressure from his supporters to pull out of the peace deal.
Mr Kuol is however confident that Dr Machar cannot afford to pull out at this juncture since, from past experience, he is aware of the political repercussions that could arise.
The leader of the holdout group, the National Salvation Front Gen Thomas Cirillo believes that the extension of the transition period last August is a clear indication that the signatories are not keen on implementing key aspects of the agreement.
He faults the signatories for an illegal extension of their stay in power for another two years without consulting the people of South Sudan. The parties in August agreed to extend the life of the government to February 2025.
As good as dead
“The flawed 2018 peace agreement is as good as dead. Our refusal to sign the agreement in September 2018 has been justified. We have known all along that the agreement is flawed and will not achieve sustainable peace,” Gen Cirillo told The EastAfrican.
Observers are concerned about whether the country will be capable of holding free and credible elections to cement peace.
The prerequisites for holding peaceful and credible elections include security sector reforms, resettlement of IDPs, repatriation of refugees, conducting a population census, the delimitation of constituencies, and the implementation of transitional justice to hold to account those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said on Tuesday that impunity is a major driver of the human rights and humanitarian crises in South Sudan, which continue to cause immense trauma and suffering for civilians.
“It is hard to imagine peace while state actors continue to be involved in gross human rights violations,” said Commission member Barney Afako, presenting the latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“A true demonstration of the government’s stated commitments to peace and human rights would involve dismissing the responsible officials and initiating prosecutions.”
Attacks against civilians
Based on investigations undertaken in South Sudan and the neighbouring region throughout 2022, the report identifies widespread attacks against civilians, systematic sexual violence against women and girls, the ongoing presence of children in fighting forces, and state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.
Commission members told the Council that South Sudan “can be different”, and that the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement, which ended a brutal civil war, remains the framework to address the conflict, repression, and corruption.
The agreement also charts a pathway for South Sudanese to make a permanent constitution that should strengthen rule of law and respect for human rights, thus laying a foundation for national stability, they said.
By David Mayen and Fred Oluoch