South Sudan: US’ responsibility


South Sudan’s demand that a planned meeting between President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and his former deputy Riek Machar be held in South Africa instead of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa has cast doubts on the chances of reviving efforts to end the violence in the world’s youngest nation.

Kiir’s government said it has no objection to Wednesday’s talks being led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has been mediating the peace talks since South Sudan plunged into a civil war in 2013. The East Africa bloc, which midwifed the first peace deal in August 2015, has been trying to have parties renegotiate a second agreement under a platform called the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF).

South Sudan wants the talks, the first between the chief antagonists of the civil war after a peace deal between the government and Machar’s rebel group fell apart in 2016, to take place in a “neutral” ground as there are “competing interests” among IGAD member states of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. Ethiopia may not like the change in the venue as the initiative for Wednesday’s talks was taken by the country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The new site may be convenient to Machar, under house arrest in South Africa since he fled Juba, South Sudan’s capital, after the deal he had signed with Kiir to form a transitional government collapsed. The new site will also take care of his security concerns. But the question is whether this will be acceptable to his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO).

South Sudan which won independence from Sudan in 2011 fell into civil war two years later after Kiir accused his rival Machar of plotting a coup against him. Initially, the violence involved only two ethnic groups: Dinka supporters of Kiir and Nuer supporters of Machar in the capital city. But soon it spread to other parts of the country, engulfing other ethnic groups.

The civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced nearly four million people, and provoked a catastrophic humanitarian crisis with the UN warning that 48 percent of the population were experiencing extreme hunger and seven million would need aid this year. It has created Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Both sides have been accused of abuses against civilians.

If violence persists in spite of attempts by the international community to restore peace, there are two reasons. One, South Sudanese leaders are more concerned with their own interests than they are with the future of the country. Second, interference of outside powers. UN experts note that weapons continue to flow into the country from various sources, including neighboring Uganda and Kenya, as well as Eastern European countries. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni openly assured President Kiir not to fear US arms restrictions.

America which midwifed the birth of the new nation has a special responsibility to see that normalcy returns to South Sudan as early as possible. Washington should strive toward resolving the crisis, both through its own initiatives and through cooperative efforts with key states, international and regional organizations. Only the US has the power and clout to ensure that all parties to the conflict reaffirm their commitment to revitalize the 2015 peace agreement and refrain from actions that would undermine this process.