Africa’s quiet moves to ‘silence the guns’

Goals for peace set by the continent’s leaders may have found success in war-torn South Sudan with a new unity government.

South Sudan's ex-vice president Riek Machar (l) and President Salva Kiir Mayardit address the media in the capital Juba Feb. 20.

Three years ago, the African Union declared with grand purpose that its 55 member states wanted to “silence the guns” on the continent. War violence was taking too heavy a toll on plans for prosperity. Since then, the regional body has mediated in three conflicts (Madagascar, Sudan, and Central African Republic). On Saturday, the AU could claim its biggest success yet in South Sudan.

In that war-ravaged country, the two main political rivals, President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, plan to set up an interim “unity government.” Their power-sharing agreement, given a final push at a recent AU security summit, calls for merging their respective forces into a national army of 83,000 and holding an election in three years.

If the deal sticks, it would end seven years of civil war in Africa’s youngest nation. South Sudan was carved out of Sudan after a 2011 referendum. Two years after independence, it erupted into conflict, driven mainly by ethnic differences. Nearly 400,000 lives have been lost and a third of the population has been displaced. Floods, famine, and lately a locust swarm have worsened South Sudan’s conditions.

Previous attempts at a political deal have failed, but they did leave a shaky truce that has lessened violence since 2018. A breakthrough came this month when President Kiir made a big concession. He agreed to cut the number of states from 32 to 10. This will reduce the “ethnic gerrymandering” of political entities that now favor his majority Dinka group. Mr. Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuers, welcomed the move. But the concession has been complicated by the president also creating three administrative areas on top of the 10 states.

The two men still have much to negotiate, especially in joining militias. They will be nudged along by the AU’s mediating skills. If South Sudan can silence its guns, that success may help end other conflicts in Africa. The AU’s once-inconceivable goal could then be an inspiration for conceiving an even grander future for Africa.

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