South Sudan peace talks resume amid pressure to compromise quickly

East African mediators and countries including the US and China are pushing to end an ugly stalemate that has made a million people homeless.

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Three of the released political detainees from South Sudan (l.-r.) Cirino Hiteng, former Minister of Youth and Sport, Gier Chuang, and Deng Alor Kuol, former minister of cabinet affairs, address a news conference in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa February 13, 2014. Officials freed from jail in South Sudan who have joined peace talks have demanded the government release four more political prisoners, warning failure to do so will undermine the negotiations.

Warring factions from South Sudan’s ruling elite are back in Ethiopia for the second phase of negotiations aimed at finding a long-term solution to a crisis that has displaced almost a million people and killed thousands.

The new talks follow a cease-fire or “cessation of hostilities agreement” signed on Jan. 23. Yet reports from South Sudan, including satellite imagery, have shown that despite a slowdown in fighting, both rebel and government forces have been active, including the torching by the Army of 1,100 homes in the birthplace of opposition leader Riek Machar.

United Nations officials this week accused the two sides of fighting in two South Sudan states, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that cluster bombs – munitions that lurk in the ground and can explode long after fighting ends – had been in use.

The conflict started with a highly personal power struggle inside the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement between President Salva Kiir and Mr. Machar, the former vice president. Mr. Kiir’s government arrested 11 leading officials on Dec. 15, accusing them of a coup attempt. Machar escaped to lead a rebellion from the bush as the personal struggle devolved rapidly into an ugly ethnic clash.

Analysts say it is crucial for Machar and Kiir to quickly reach a compromise to avoid a protracted bitter conflict, and to begin a political dialogue and reconciliation process. One reason for hope in what is seen as a dark picture is external pressure coming from the US, UK, Norway, and China – and efforts by an eight-member regional East African council that is mediating.

Another small ray of hope is that the East African mediators are insisting that the peace process include a swath of civil society, the business community, the South Sudanese diaspora, different political parties, and women.

Already, a new dimension in the Addis talks is the inclusion of seven leaders released by Kiir’s government recently after being detained as coup plotters. That group is led by former Justice Minister John Luk Jok and former Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor Kuol, and today the former detainees told reporters they are not aligned with either Machar's rebels or Kiir's government. 

The opening ceremony for the talks featured Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The chair of the eight-nation mediating team from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is former Ethiopian foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin, who argued that South Sudan’s SPLM had failed to transform itself from guerrilla fighters into governors.

“The result has been that South Sudan has been suffering from fragile or even nonexistent institutions, the effect of which should not come as a surprise,” said Mr. Seyoum, himself a founder of an Ethiopian rebel force that became a ruling party.

The idea of dialogue, reconciliation, and the discussion of building institutions is a lofty one, but before such a broad conversation can take place, the fratricide within SPLM will have to end, analysts say.

Both rebel and government representatives used the opening ceremony to accuse the other of continued fighting in violation of the Jan. 23 agreement.

“We are deeply disappointed and dismayed by the flagrant and repeated violations,” said the head of the Juba delegation, former foreign minister Nhial Deng Nhial, at the ceremony. That language was echoed by his rebel counterpart. Taban Deng Gai.  

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