South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar and the nation's president Salva Kiir have agreed to negotiate after two weeks of bitter fighting that has brought the world's newest nation to the brink of an extended civil war.
Yet fighting is apparently continuing as government forces under Mr. Kiir were engaged at least up to a deadline designed to trigger military intervention by neighboring African states, backed by the international community.
Forces loyal to Mr. Machar, the former vice-president, have been trying to take the town of Bor, a regional capitol and lucrative center of oil production, as strategic leverage.
The two South Sudanese leaders today agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” and say they will send delegations to Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, “to develop a monitored and implemented ceasefire,” according to a statement from Kenya’s ministry of foreign affairs, which has been part of the diplomacy around a truce in South Sudan.
At this writing military operations continue in Bor according to a government army spokesman who told the Monitor after the agreement on talks was announced that it was not clear who controlled the town.
“What we know there is still fighting in Bor,” Col. Philip Aguer said.
Violence in South Sudan began Dec. 15 when a skirmish between military factions in the capital, Juba, spiraled into killings across the country. The United Nations says thousands have been killed and 180,000 displaced with over 75,000 people sheltering in UN bases.
South Sudan won independence in 2011 after decades of civil war with the north.
After the Juba clashes, Kiir accused Machar, who went into hiding, of attempting a coup. Machar denied this but called for Kiir to step down. The two men are leaders of the two main ethnic groups (Machar of the Nuer ethnicity, and Kiir of the Dinka) but many analysts view the conflict as primarily one of power and money that is being played out using ethnic divisions.
Moreover, on Monday and Tuesday, and despite the peace agreement, the “White Army,” a militia made up of Nuer youths, along with the forces of renegade general Peter Gadet, retook parts of the flashpoint- town Bor in Jonglei state which has been the center of violence in the two-year old central African nation, reports say.
On Monday Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni threatened that East African nations would intervene and “defeat” Machar if he did not agree to talk before the new year begins Wednesday.
The escalation has been alarming enough for the UN to vote last week to send 5,500 additional peacekeepers and 423 policemen, expected in January, to protect civilians. US Marines have been flown to bases in the Horn of Africa and are ready to evacuate Americans.
Part of the ongoing drama dates to July when Kiir dissolved the government and fired Machar, his then vice president, after which rumblings of armed dispute began. The president is known as a conciliator who makes large concessions to former adversaries, but he told the BBC Tuesday that a power-sharing deal is “not an option” this time.
Yet South Sudan has a history of disgruntled politicians taking up arms and then being integrated into power without addressing their root grievances, says Jok Madut Jok of the Juba-based think tank Sudd Institute, adding that the current crisis presents an opportunity to break the cycle.
“The reasons why this fighting broke out is the way the security sector has been arranged, the failure of the state to deliver postwar benefits to the ordinary people,…corruption,” he told the Monitor. “So we have to look very carefully at what were the causes and build into the [proposed Addis Ababa] deal the causes, so we prevent anything like this happening again."
Since Dec. 15 violence has erupted in seven of South Sudan’s ten states; the UN has reported mass graves and other reports have soldiers going door- to- door and targeting members of rival ethnic groups. Such killings have taken place despite the fact that some of Machar's opposition includes leaders from Kiir’s Dinka tribe, adding to the analysis that the fight is not caused simply by ethnic disputes or hate.
Last week brought heavy fighting in the oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states. The rebels control Unity. Some oil fields have shut down, raising fears of fallout from Sudan whose economy relies on transporting South Sudan’s oil.
Despite agreeing to talk, Machar this week also vowed to march on Juba, AFP reported. Whether he can control South Sudan's numerous anti-government forces is unknown.
“I would be skeptical that Riek [Machar] has anything more than symbolic control over the various rebellions in the country,” wrote Lesley Anne Warner, Africa analyst at CNA's Center for Strategic Studies, in an email to the Monitor. “I think these were alliances of convenience formed out of opportunism, and they may be prone to unravel as quickly as they were created.”
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said over 70,000 people have fled Bor. “Living conditions are verging on the catastrophic," the group said in a statement.
Mike White, MSF’s head of mission for Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states, said emergency teams still have not contacted many people who fled to the bush while others affected may not be able to reach camps or hospitals.
“We’re now seeing gunshot wounds coming from Bor and Juba from last week,” he said. “These are people walking back to northern Jonglei because there is no access to health care anywhere in between.”
White stressed that health care in South Sudan, a country the size of France with only a few miles of paved road, was dire even before the violence.