South Sudan: major tests lie ahead as warring leaders move to reunite

The former vice president Machar is expected to return to Juba Monday to form a unity government with President Kiir after nearly three years of civil war. 

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar and his wife, Angelina Teny, stood for South Sudan's national anthem earlier this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, ahead of Machar's return to South Sudan to form a unity government.

The rebel return did not go according to plan.

Last week, a delegation of rebel politicians loaded onto a rickety bus after landing at the Juba International Airport, anticipating their first tour of South Sudan’s capital in more than two years. They arrived in advance of rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar, who is expected on Monday for the first time since the civil war began more than three years ago. Mr. Machar’s return sets the stage for a unity government headed by President Salva Kiir – and an end to the war.

 As the bus began its voyage into Juba’s dusty streets, the rebels crooned chants out the window. “You shall recover!” one chanted. The bus passed banks, the epicenter of a crippling economic collapse. It creaked by the Juba Teaching Hospital, which is nearly out of essential drugs. It snaked by lines at a gas station, a symbol of this country’s main source of revenue — oil — which has become worthless on the international market. Seemingly shocked by the sight of Juba devastated by more than two years of civil war, the chants quieted.

Then the bus came to a halt.

 “We are lost,” said William Ezekiel, a spokesperson for the opposition.

 It could have been a metaphor for the entire bid to reunite South Sudan’s two warring leaders. Much like the return of the SPLA-IO rebels last week, the effort to get their leader, Machar, to the capital city has been chaotic.

Forming a unity government with President Kiir is crucial for peace – a point the international community has forcefully underscored with threats of international legal action, an arms embargo, and by blocking access to international finance.

 But while the outside pressure seems to have had an impact, it is also ushering in a new phase of uncertainty. Juba will now be ground zero for the many tensions that have long divided both sides in this deadly civil war, which has killed more than 300,000 people by one estimate. Meanwhile, local disputes are likely to continue across the country. For Kir and Machar, managing their relationship, but also managing extremists in each of their camp, will be key to sustaining this fragile peace agreement.

“It’s not clear where we are going,” says Jair van der Lijn, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “Kiir and Machar should be able to sort their things out. I think that the biggest threat isn't with these two guys, but much more the extremists who don't want to see this [peace] process continue.”

Potential spoilers

Indeed, the unity government, which will be led by Kiir with Machar as his vice president, could see a rise in tension.

Some diplomats and experts point to Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong as a potential spoiler.

Last week, fighting between the government’s SPLA forces and likely SPLA-IO aligned troops of Machar took place in the Western Equitoria and western Bahr El Ghazal regions of the country. Civilians fled the area amid heavy casualties.

A senior SPLA official said the operation in Bahr El Ghazal “was being personally coordinated by SPLA Chief of Staff Paul Malong,” according to an internal United Nations report that has been obtained by The Christian Science Monitor.

“Fighting will continue” after Machar comes back, wrote Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, in an e-mail interview. The Army “chief of staff and strongman Paul Malong has forces fighting a number of wars that are not directly related to Riek [Machar] and the SPLA-IO.”

Homes were also shelled in the Upper Nile region last week by a SPLA-IO allied militia commanded by Johnson Olony, according to local media reports. Experts say that like Malong, Mr. Olony could drive conflict because he is more concerned with regaining lost territory in the Malakal region than he is sustaining a national peace deal.

That the conflict continues on a local level while there are signs of rapprochement on the national level speaks to the many layers of South Sudan's conflict. In response to criticism that the peace deal didn't address these local disputes, a Western diplomat acknowledged that Machar's return is just one step among many that must happen for a sustainable peace in the country.

Tensions high 

In the capital, tensions between both sides are rife ahead of Monday’s anticipated reunion.

On the morning of the rebels' arrival last week, the trust deficit was evident in the arrest of 16 people for promoting the return to South Sudan of Machar’s deputy Alfred Gore, according to the opposition, who also said Mr. Gore was prevented from speaking at a public rally. 

The government has accused the SPLA-IO of “planting seeds of suspicion and mistrust.”

“This government of the national unity will be made up of people that are so antagonistic with each other that the success of that government forming the tasks is very, very low,” argues Jok Madut of the Sudd Institute, a think tank in Juba. “It’s not going to be a peace, it’s going to be a rest.”

The last time Machar was in Juba, South Sudan’s civil war kicked off. The fighting was sparked after an internal rift within the Presidential Guard, called the Tiger Division, according to an African Union report.

Recently, under the scorching South Sudanese sun, Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang showcased the controversial Tiger Division, wielding a baton made of black ebony wood with a ring of elephant tusk, and snapping a brigade of government soldiers to attention. 

“We have been behind schedule for eight months. The questions is ‘Are we going to be on course starting from the day he [Machar] arrives? That is a question we will leave to time,” said Koang, who is the SPLA spokesman.

The soldiers of the elite Tiger Division began to sing military chants, with one highlighting the challenges of unification that lie ahead.

According to one translation, the soldiers sang: “Tigers eat people. Tigers eat Machar.” 

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