The peace agreement signed between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rivalling factions at the end of June failed to conclude the civil war that has been tearing apart the world’s newest country since 2013, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced.
While the ink was still wet on the document, the rebels rejected parts of the deal, dashing the hopes of the international community for ending the conflict and presenting a successful model of seceding countries in Africa.
Amid regional mediation efforts to revive peace in South Sudan, the UN Security Council (UNSC) last week approved a US-drafted resolution imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan. Six countries abstained from voting on the resolution: Russia, China, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan.
The embargo was passed with the minimum of nine votes, unlike that proposed by the Obama administration which failed to garner enough votes.
“South Sudan’s people have endured unimaginable suffering and unspeakable atrocities. Their leaders have failed them. We need the violence to stop,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the council before the vote.
Ethiopia’s UN Ambassador Tekeda Alemu told the council before voting that, “Addis Ababa has been mediating for another round of peace talks in South Sudan.”
He added that imposing the arms embargo would undermine the peace process and that the African Union and East African regional bloc, comprising the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), believe “now is not the appropriate time for taking such measures.”
At the end of May the UN renewed its embargo on South Sudan until 15 July. In addition to the immediate arms embargo, the resolution imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on six leading South Sudanese officials.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said 29 June that “trusted reports confirmed violence was still ongoing” and that peacekeeping forces have recorded grave violations of international humanitarian law.
“Regional and international efforts to mediate for peace in South Sudan have not yet yielded tangible results. But I must emphasise that any deal has to be comprehensive, just and sustainable,” Guterres wrote in his report.
At least 232 people were killed and 120 women and girls raped in “scorched earth” attacks conducted by South Sudan government and allied forces in villages regarded as opposition strongholds earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Office said 10 July.
A UN investigation, the office added, revealed that three South Sudanese leaders bear “the gravest responsibility” for the violence ravaging the youngest country, especially in the period from 16 April to 24 May, that can be at least described as war crimes.
The investigation report stated that in the attack on 40 opposition-held villages, elders and disabled people were burned alive. In addition, 132 women and girls were kidnapped in the violent assaults that forced 31,140 to flee for their lives.
Opposition forces also conducted attacks that claimed the lives of civilians, the report added.
Before the UNSC voted on the arms embargo, the South Sudan parliament had approved extending Kiir’s presidential term till 2021 in a move condemned by the opposition.
Chairman of Parliament’s Information Committee Paul Youani Bonju said the move will bolster the government’s position in the peace talks with rebel groups.
The terms of other officials, including parliamentarians and governors, were extended as well.
Mabior Garang De Mabior, spokesman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition (SPLM-IO), told Reuters from Nairobi: “We regret the move as it shows the regime is playing games at the negotiating table.
The international community should not recognise this move and the regime should be declared as a rogue regime.”
The move will complicate the way to lasting peace in South Sudan immersed in tribal war between the majority Dinka, to which Kiir belongs, and rebel leader Riek Machar’s Nuer.
The recent reinstatement of Machar as vice president convinced the opposition to retract its disapproval of the law that was changed to allow for the extended term of Kiir and other officials.
Deputy spokesman of SPLM-IO Paul Lam Gabriel said the move was “unacceptable” and that the rebels should choose two of Kiir’s four vice-presidents – the number of vice-presidents was agreed upon in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement – to loosen Kiir’s grip on power.
“We will not settle for the position of vice president only in these negotiations. We are more focused on structural and institutional causes to impose more restrictions on Kiir’s regime on the legislative and executive levels,” he added.
From the look of it, South Sudan is back to square one. The armed opposition, while objecting to extending Kiir’s mandate, is demanding the instatement of an additional vice president. Negotiating for a list of other demands appears even more difficult.
The government’s attack on opposition-held villages and areas inhabited by the Nuer tribe will further complicate the road to peace in South Sudan.
The situation is disturbing, to say the least, for neighbouring countries, especially with the leaps Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, has taken to reconcile with Eritrea, Addis Ababa’s arch-rival for more than two decades, as well as talks among East Africa countries to calm Kenya’s domestic front, and reconciliation efforts taking place in Somalia.
At the same time, the Khartoum administration, which is accused of aggravating violence in South Sudan, wants to change the status quo to give more room to negotiate for the exportation of oil from South Sudan and Red Sea ports to improve its failing economy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Stumbling blocks in South Sudan