Riek Machar and Salva Kiir signed a new peace deal in September 2018 in Addis Ababa. But, will the deal lead to lasting peace and quell South Sudan’s ethnic tensions? Pa Sako Darboe cautions that unless ethnic tensions are defused, history may be repeating itself.
In an unprecedented move, warring parties in South Sudan went on a retreat in The Vatican. Comprising members of the South Sudanese presidency, Riek Machar, Salva Kiir, Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, widow of John Garang and members of the Council of Churches of South Sudan, the retreat was described by the Vatican Secretary of State as an “opportunity for encountering reconciliation in the spirit of respect and trust for those who at this moment have the special mission and responsibility to work for the development of South Sudan.” In a symbolic gesture, Pope Francis knelt and kissed the feet of Machar and Kiir, and pleaded with them to keep the peace.
The retreat must have worked because soon after, Riek Machar, leader of the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition, which he formed soon after being expelled from Kiir’s government in 2013, was reinstated as the country’s vice-president. However, if history repeats itself, there might be little to celebrate. South Sudan’s faltering peace processes, economic crises and a looming nationwide famine are a test to the tenacity of the country’s political leadership. More importantly, it stands to be seen whether the peace process will restore trust among the country’s politicized and militarized ethnic groups.
Ethnic conflict has always been a feature of the South Sudanese polity. Seemingly united in the fight for independence, it soon emerged soon after the 2011 referendum that the 99% who voted in favour of independence were divided amongst themselves. Without a common enemy, political leaders soon rallied their ethnic groups in their fight for political power.
Although ethnicity is dominant in South Sudan’s politics, the reality is that the civil war is a result of personal power struggles between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. For instance, two years after attaining independence, Kiir accused his former vice president, Riek Machar , of plotting a military coup. As a result, intense fighting erupted in December 2013 in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, between the presidential guard battalion (mainly Dinka), a force loyal to President Kiir, and Machar’s Nuer loyalist force. Even more, Ugandan forces intervened to fight alongside South Sudan’s government to resist the rebels – giving the conflict a regional touch and adding to its complexity.
As a result, Machar created the Sudanese People Liberation Movement/Army-In-Opposition (SPLM/A-I-O), an armed opposition group that defected from the main Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM) to fight against the SPLM headed by President Kiir. Several other key SPLM commanders defected and joined in the new rebellion to resist the government forces. Due to the heavy fighting, hundreds of thousands crossed the border to neighboring countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia or took refuge in the United Nations buildings in South Sudan – and it soon emerged that to gain more support and legitimacy, the warring leaders promoted ethnic tensions. But the main cause of the conflict is the personal rift that was moulded into an ethnic conflict.
In most African countries, politics is intricately linked to ethnicity, and South Sudan is not an exception. Mr. Kiir emanates from the Dinka ethnic group (the largest ethnic group in South Sudan), while Mr. Machar is from the Nuer tribe (the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan). These divergent ethnic identities serve as a determining factor in fueling the conflict in South Sudan. It is a conflict based on the propaganda that the respective leaders are protecting the interests of their ethnic groups, empower them, and maintain their dominance over other ethnic groups to increase their share of national wealth. The result is ethnicisation of politics and militarization of ethnicity.
As Riek Machar and Salva Kiir appear to have buried the ratchet, what remains as a threat to the peace process is the resolution of pervasive ethnic rivalry in the country. Previously, in August 2015, the two sides signed the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in Addis Ababa, negotiated under the auspices of Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – and Machar returned to form a transitional government of national unity in 2016. In terms of that peace deal, he was reinstated as the country’s vice president. Yet, when power struggles between Machar and Kiir re-emerged, the country was thrust back into conflict and ethnic tensions erupted.
The odds seem to be against the September 2018 peace deal. Before tensions have been de-escalated, Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s former president who brokered the fragile peace deal was ousted from power and faces trial. Sudan, itself is in political turmoil, leaving a vacuum that is slowly being filled by paramilitaries accused of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Darfur. With some outstanding border conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan, political instability in Sudan is likely to spillover into South Sudan.
The overthrow of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir put the peace deal in jeopardy – because al-Bashir had made it a priority as claimed by some observers. In his absence, it is not clear who will put pressure on Juba to maintain the peace deal. In addition, a six-month extension requested by the opposition to implement the peace deal raises ‘security concerns’ and suspicions that the peace deal could fall apart, again. With such uncertainty, a stagnant economy, ravaging famine and without concerted efforts to diffuse ethnic tensions, it appears the September 2018 peace deal may not last long and ethnic groups remain apprehensive.
Pa Sako Darboe works at the Embassy of the Republic of The Gambia in Washington, D.C, the United States of America