S. Sudan takes tentative step forward as former rebel leader becomes VP

Riek Machar's return to govern with President Salva Kiir is crucial to ending the 2-1/2-year civil war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced 2.3 million.

Jason Patinkin/Associated Press
South Sudan's new Vice President Riek Machar, center-left, walked with President Salva Kiir, center-right, after being sworn in at the presidential palace in Juba.

Peace doves that had remained in their cages for more than a week were released Tuesday, as South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar set foot in Juba for the first time in more than two years. Mr. Machar was then whisked to meet President Salva Kiir – until recently his opponent in the country's bitter civil war – and was inaugurated as first vice president.

Machar's return is crucial for ending the conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced 2.3 million since it began in 2013, just two and a half years after South Sudan gained independence in 2011. He had been expected in Juba last Monday, but disputes over the number of troops he was traveling with and the types of weapons they were allowed to carry delayed his arrival. 

The eight-day wait tested the patience of many, and is a fraught beginning to this new chapter in South Sudan’s history. 

For South Sudanese, the daily delays were a stressful teaser. Some doubted Machar would return at all. For the international community, they represented the intransigence of both sides, calling into question the millions of dollars and years of diplomacy spent trying to achieve peace.

“What is surprising for me is not that the implementation of the peace process has stalled, but that anyone is surprised that it has stalled. There is very little good faith on the two sides and certainly very little trust in each other” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, in an interview on the organization's website.

Five years ago, the international community was eager to assist the newly independent South Sudan. But today, diplomats have become fed up with both sides. 

South Sudan is experiencing a crippling economic crisis, and one of the first tasks of the unity government will be negotiating a financial rescue package from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Diplomats talk of a “new normal” in relationships to the government, where donors scale back financial assistance and offer aid only with conditions, such as increasing funding to health and education services.

Some say that the current peace deal doesn’t address the drivers of the conflict. 

“Forming a government with the same actors responsible for the collapse of the economy and atrocities holds open the possibility that grand corruption will return to its pre-war patterns,” says John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project. 

Indeed, the task for Kiir and Machar will be to manage not only their fraught relationship, but the extremists in each of their camps who have an interest in stopping the  deal. Yet on Tuesday, those partisans did not make an appearance. 

Instead, President Kiir apologized to the people of South Sudan and the international community. 

“We acknowledge there are unresolved indues related to the [peace] agreement, but I promise we will resolve those issues amicably,” Kiir said, looking out from under his signature cowboy hat. 

The cowboy hat has become a staple of Kiir’s wardrobe, after he first received it as a gift from President George W. Bush. In 2005, Mr. Bush was instrumental in securing the independence of South Sudan.  

Perhaps a signal that the support of the international community is more important than individual grudges, Machar made a notable fashion choice as he arrived in Juba.

Like Kiir, he sported what appeared to be an American cowboy hat — perhaps an ode to the international support that South Sudan needs now more than ever.

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