Pope Francis landed in Juba, South Sudan on Friday to continue the spread of his peace message, even as rights lobbies urged him to speak about abuses in Africa’s youngest nation.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church landed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where clashes had erupted as he toured the country.
In South Sudan, there was reported violence on the eve of his trip where armed herders killed 21 civilians in a reprisal attack on a rival cattle camp in Kajo-Keji County of Central Equatoria, signalling just how unstable the region is.
In Juba, his visit from Friday to Sunday is expected to unite a wrangling transitional government of national unity (TGNU).
Abuses against civilians
But rights watchers also say the Pope can use the occasion to lay into officials against abuses registered in the country against civilians.
“The Church leaders should use their visit to emphasise that it is far past time for the country’s leaders to implement essential reforms and end the suffering of people in South Sudan,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“They should also press South Sudan’s leaders to take concrete steps to end attacks on civilians and to ensure accountability for serious abuses.”
No election yet
South Sudan is 11 years old in its independence but hasn’t managed a single election. Sporadic violence since 2013 has hampered any plans for polls and a peace deal signed in 2018, and which created a coalition government, has until February next year to organise polls.
Yet, ethnic clashes and reported targeting of civil society activists are some of the biggest governance issues in the country.
Under the peace deal, South Sudan is also supposed to make reforms in the security sector, pass a new constitution and other laws to make it easier to govern. Most steps are already behind schedule, which forced the elections to be delayed by another two years last year.
“Pope Francis should publicly call on the country’s leaders to take concrete steps to end impunity for crimes under international law.
“Improving the human rights situation in each country will not be possible without criminal accountability for atrocities committed amid the armed conflicts,” said Tigere Chagutah, Regional Director for East and Southern Africa at Amnesty International.