Is the peace agreement on the brink of collapse?

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Given the events of the past couple of weeks, it’s fair to say that we are witnessing a dramatic change in the political environment in South Sudan since the spiritual retreat in the Vatican that took place on the 9th and the 10th of April 2019. As we know His Holiness Pope Francis invited the South Sudanese leaders to spend a couple of days of prayers and personal reflection for the sake of peace in the country. However, what followed seems like a paradoxical result to the pontiff’s endeavour. The optimism about the implementation of the revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) seems to have vanished rapidly among the signatories in the opposition. Uncertainty regarding the entire peace agreement spread like bushfire and dominated the political debate. In the meantime, the government and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) continued to claim progress in the implementation of the agreement contrary to the realities on the ground.

It appears the papal invitation was perceived or indeed exploited differently by each party. The government saw it as an opportunity to garner support for the R-ARCSS and most importantly; to secure funding from sceptical donors in the international community. At least one of the signatories to the R-ARCSS, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM IO), joined the government’s efforts perhaps in an attempt to ease the restrictions imposed on its leader by the IGAD. As for the rest of the signatories, their disappointment for not being invited to the Holy See was quite evident. Furthermore, the invitation itself didn’t escape criticism by many South Sudanese because it was limited to leaders from two ethnicities while an entire region (Equatoria) was not represented. By implication, it reduced the crisis in South Sudan to a conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer communities, a notion very far from the truth.

The spiritual retreat couldn’t have come at a better time for the regime and the signatories to the R-ARCSS among the opposition. The government probably regarded it as a boost to its position from an unlikely source considering the criticism of the peace deal by the Catholic bishops in their conference in Juba at the end of February 2019. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Juba, His Grace Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro said at the time that the Catholic bishops fear the deal is “fatally flawed and cannot bring true peace in South Sudan”. The rare act of humility where the Pope kissed the feet of President Kiir and Dr Riek Machar asking them to embrace peace in front of the international audience, was the icing on the cake for the regime in Juba.

That gesture of goodwill by the Pope received controversial views from the South Sudanese people. The overwhelming majority welcomed the appeal for peace but were shocked by seeing the pontiff kneeling with help and kissing the feet of the two leaders. The reason is that the two leaders remain liable to atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed under their watch. The majority of the people think the Pope has already done enough by inviting the leaders for the spiritual retreat and praying for peace in South Sudan. The two leaders haven’t shown any empathy or compassion towards their people to deserve papal kisses on their feet.

As expected the regime in Juba was quick to add spin to the matter in a naive attempt to rehabilitate the damaged image of the President and the government. The opposition groups that have signed the R-ARCSS had their share in attempting to mislead the public. Both tried to propagate the false notion that the papal kisses were an endorsement of the R-ARCSS. The truth of the matter is that the kiss of the pontiff for peace is one thing, and endorsing the R-ARCSS is another. Moreover, what matters is the endorsement that comes from our people in the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries, in our towns and villages, and those facing all sorts of hardships in the bushes of South Sudan.

But the optimism about the implementation of the R-ARCSS seems to have disappeared into thin air. All the indicators are pointing in the direction of a bumpy ride from now onwards. To be accurate, the implementation of the R-ARCSS hasn’t been a smooth process from the outset. The reason it reached the current stage is that the signatories from the opposition have been continuously giving in to bullying by the government and the IGAD. They were too quick to go to Juba and allowed some provisions of the agreement to be skipped. Now, the situation has reached the point where further concession would mean an admission of what many people already know which is their surrender to the government.

The past couple of weeks brought up what had long been whispered or said behind closed doors into the public domain. We have been reading and hearing protests against how the R-ARCSS is being implemented from low-ranking cadres of the SPLM IO for months. Now, the top-ranking officials are the ones complaining. The contentious issues are the demilitarisation of Juba and other population centres, cantonment of the government forces and those belonging to the opposition, and the formation of the national army among other issues. All the above are behind schedule as stipulated in the R-ARCSS. Additionally, the provisions concerning the Independent Boundary Commission (IBC) and the number of states that are crucial to the formation of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU), haven’t been implemented so far.

The failure to implement the critical provisions of the agreement within the stipulated timeframe forced the SPLM IO leader, Dr Riek Machar to demand an extension of the pre-transitional period to six more months to allow for the completion of the process. But the SPLM IO leader seems not to realise or has chosen not to admit that the issue is not insufficient time but rather the lack of political will from the government to implement the agreement in spirit and letter.

Manawa Peter Gatkuoth, one of the SPLM IO delegates in Juba, said I quote – “Juba has not been demilitarised and troops are being brought to Juba every day, and this is not good.” Such a revelation is indirectly damaging to the SPLM IO leadership. In January 2019, the Chief of Staff of the South Sudan People’s Defense Force (SSPDF), General Gabriel Jok Riak and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the SPLM IO, General James Koang Chuol declared in a joint Press Conference their agreement to attack the National Salvation Front (NAS) forces together. As you can see the SPLM IO is all over the place. How could it collaborate with its arch-enemy against a fellow opposition Movement and feel safe at the same time?! The fundamental question though is – why is the SPLM IO consciously allowing itself to fall into an apparent trap?! Has it already been infiltrated by the regime?!

Henry Odwar, the SPLM IO Deputy Chairman, said in a recent interview over the BBC Focus on Africa that his Movement will withdraw from the R-ARCSS should the government proceed with the formation of the R-TGoNU. He cited that the R-TGoNU cannot be formed without the implementation of the security arrangements and a determination of the number of states. But the government has made it clear that it would form the new R-TGoNU as scheduled on the 12th of May 2019 with or without the SPLM IO. By then, Odwar and his colleagues may not have the luxury of leaving Juba at will. He already had a taste of that when he complained in his early days of return to Juba of being prevented from meeting his family and friends. While the regime is singing the bogus implementation of the R-ARCSS – it goes on the offensive in Wau, the Yei area, and parts of Western Equatoria. Moreover, the unknown gunmen are not yet out of business in Juba and the entire country.

The ousting of the Sudanese President, Omar Al Bashir from power on 11/04/2019 was bad news for Machar and the SPLM IO. Ex-President Omar Al Bashir is one of the two peace guarantors and the only backer of Machar in the region. Meanwhile, President Kiir continues to receive the support of the second peace guarantor who is none other than President Museveni of Uganda. The new development would not make President Kiir seek compromises as he now sees a weakening of his opponent. Instead, it would encourage him to stick to his guns.

As the positions of the two principal signatories (Kiir and Machar) appear to have moved decidedly towards entrenchment – the collapse of the entire peace deal seems inevitable. It’s indeed imminent. The so-called revitalised peace agreement is falling apart before the eyes of the world.

Lotole Lo Luri