Path to peace eludes South Sudan mediators

Talks in Ethiopia have stalled amid concerns that regional powers are pushing their interests over peacemaking in Africa's newest country. 

Ali Ngethi / AP
South Sudanese people take part today in a peace march organized by civil society groups in South Sudan's capital, Juba. Officials in Ethiopia say peace talks for South Sudan are stalled over the issue of political prisoners, describing the talks as "on and off" after the special envoy of a bloc of East African countries known as IGAD flew to South Sudan to speak about political detainees.

Mediators from Uganda to Kenya – many of whom helped birth South Sudan and end Africa's longest-running civil war – are trying to staunch a bloody conflict that threatens to tear apart a new nation.

Nearly one month on, fighting continues to rage in South Sudan, once considered a US foreign policy success story. Peace talks have stalled in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. One sticking point: rebel leader Riek Machar has demanded the immediate release of political prisoners held by President Salva Kiir, his antagonist, who refuses such an amnesty.

The task of getting the baby nation back on its feet looks increasingly daunting. Peacemakers face clashing agendas among neighbors with a vested interest in oil and trade; the emergence of local warlords and new political divisions; a record of ceasefires declared and broken; and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians amid tribal bloodletting.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is reportedly sending troops to back President Kiir and has vowed that East Africa nations would collaborate to “defeat” Mr. Machar if he does not agree to a ceasefire.

Machar’s renegade forces have engaged government troops around the strategic town of Bor, which could serve as a staging post for a march on the capital, Juba.

Delegations in Ethiopia representing Mr. Kiir and the rebels under Machar, whom Kiir brands a coup plotter, have not engaged in serious talks, to the frustration of international mediators.

US Secretary of State John Kerry this week warned South Sudan's leaders not to treat the talks as “a delay gimmick” that will allow competing factions to grab territory or strategic advantage.  

“It took five days to get these guys to the point where they'd meet one another, and we haven't seen any evidence of any progress that the fighting is going to end any time soon,” says analyst Eric Reeves, who has focused on Sudan for over a decade and now teaches at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Yet with continuing battles between rival army factions that inflame ethnic divisions, and an official tally of 1,000 dead, there are questions over who should bring the two sides to the negotiating table. 

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, who splits his time between Columbia University and Uganda's Makerere University, argues that influential East African groupings such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have not been honest brokers in the conflict.

IGAD “made things worse by calling on the two sides of the conflict to negotiate, while brazenly supporting the [President] Kiir faction, where necessary, with troops,” Mamdani says. Uganda was taking “the lead on this,” with possibly hundreds or thousands of troops sent in ostensibly to help its citizens, he added.

A rebel commander told The Associated Press that Ugandan military aircraft had targeted his troops. Trucks carrying military hardware have also been photographed traveling north from Uganda towards South Sudan.

Mr. Museveni has said that Machar needed to start negotiating. "If he doesn't, we shall have to go for him, all of us. That is what we agreed in Nairobi," the Ugandan leader said in Juba.

Historian Douglas Johnson says that IGAD’s effectiveness hinges on support from major players like the US, UK, and Norway. But he doubts that international mediators hold much sway over Machar, who has a history of changing sides.

In April, Kiir took political powers away from Machar, following a landmark visit by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to Juba. Having apparently neutralized the threat from the north and agreed terms for oil shipments, Kiir sacked his entire cabinet in July. Among those left out were former rival warlords from the civil war period. 

Bashir returned this week to pledge support to Kiir, while his foreign minister allegedly offered troops to patrol oilfields. The decision to bring in the country's old enemy to resolve its internal battles was met with shock and derision by some. 

South Sudan analyst Aly Verjee says that “the historic enemy of first resort is now the ally of last resort,” as Kiir scrambles to save his government.

But the real test will be mending parallel conflicts in the leadership and military, as well as the ethnic divisions that they have exposed in an increasingly divided population, with some 60,000 people hiding in UN bases, mostly separated along tribal lines.

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