With peace talks dead, S. Sudan's president emerges defiant

A shift in President Kiir's rhetoric and military tactics displays a more hardline and less conciliatory approach as thousands gathered to hear him speak publicly for the first time since peace talks with rebel leaders broke down earlier this month.

Jok Solomun/Reuters
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (C) acknowledges his supporters as he arrives to address a rally at John Garang's Mausoleum in the capital Juba March 18, 2015, on the peace talks process with South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar. Fighting since December 2013 between forces loyal to Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy Machar has reopened ethnic fault lines that pit Kiir's Dinka people against Machar's ethnic Nuer forces.

In a defiant and much-anticipated speech on Wednesday, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir laid out his plans to end his country's 15-month civil war — but they have little to do with reconciling and reaching a political settlement.

Instead, he vowed to keep fighting and to make zero concessions to the rebels, regardless of the threat of sanctions from the international community.

The speech, his first public address since peace talks with his former deputy Riek Machar broke down earlier this month, indicates a shift in his rhetoric. Without the ceremony of ongoing negotiations to keep his public statements in check, Mr. Kiir appeared hardline and unwilling to compromise, further reducing the already small chance at peace.

"We will never surrender," Kiir proclaimed before a crowd of thousands in the capital, Juba. "We know war, how it is. If it is imposed on us, we will also fight back."

Forces loyal to Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, have been battling antigovernment insurgents allied with Mr. Machar, a Nuer, for over a year. The war began after soldiers under Kiir carried out attacks targeting ethnic Nuer in Juba in December 2013, which prompted revenge attacks of equal horror against the Dinka by Nuer people elsewhere in the country. Since then, some 50,000 people have been killed and two million have been displaced.

Since the regionally-led talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia collapsed on March 5, Kiir's soldiers have gone on a major offensive in the Upper Nile, quickly taking numerous villages and claiming to have killed scores of rebel soldiers.

Both Kiir and Machar have blown hot and cold throughout the conflict by waging war while talking peace. According to Lual Deng, a political scientist at the Juba-based Ebony Center for Strategic Studies, with a military offensive underway, Kiir now feels confident enough to drop pretenses of compromise.

"[Kiir's troops] were asked to move out of their trenches to attack even before the peace talks collapsed," says Mr. Deng. "So what one can say is his public statement is [now] consistent with the military moves."

Challenging the international community

Kiir's strong statements against his opponents and his digs at the international community were likely opposite to the public image some of his advisers hoped to display. Wednesday's speech was postponed more than a week, allegedly due to disagreements over tone between the hardliners and the moderates of his inner circle.

"The written speech is more conciliatory than the speech he gave," Deng says.

Kiir ruled out acceding to any of the rebels' demands – from power and wealth sharing to the payment of debts incurred while fighting – because he reasoned it would be tantamount to rewarding rebellion.

"I refuse," he said, referring to the suggestion that he give Machar a top position in his government in exchange for peace.

Speaking to a large crowd of supporters – as well as civil servants ordered to attend – Kiir appeared at ease and peppered his speech with jokes. He didn't seem fazed by the threat of sanctions, challenging the international community to make good on renewed threats by the United Nations Security Council to impose asset freezes and travel bans on top officials.

"Let them hit on any wall and on whomever they want," he said to applause. "I can't be threatened by this issue."

But Kiir's confidence to speak his mind belies other looming challenges like the developing threat of new opposition groups. Sanctions or not, his government is almost out of money due to low worldwide oil prices and slashed production in the Upper Nile from fighting.

Already that has led to strikes and violent protests in areas of the country that he has previously counted on for support. Kiir may have to start talking with the rebels sooner than he'd like.

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