South Sudan: opposition split deepens turmoil amid crumbling peace accord

A breakaway faction of opposition politicians replaced First Vice President Riek Machar with Taban Deng, whose appointment appears to throw out nearly a year of careful negotiations that were bolstered by the US and a group of East African countries.  

Displaced people are seen Friday with jerry-cans as they walk to collect water at a UN site hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan.

For the first time in its brief history, South Sudan will not be directed by the two leaders who have shaped its political fortunes since the country's founding in 2011. 

On Saturday, a breakaway faction of opposition politicians replaced First Vice President Riek Machar with Taban Deng, a top opposition leader. The group said that because Mr. Machar was not in Juba and they had not spoken to him in days, they had to turn to someone else to carry out a faltering peace agreement. 

The internal party coup comes shortly after Juba saw days of running street battles between President Salva Kiir’s government forces and those of the opposition, and just three months after a unity government between Mr. Kiir and Machar was formed to put an end to a civil war that broke out in December 2013. The fighting killed at least 500 people.

Two weeks ago, clashes in Juba saw the bombing of Machar’s compound, reports of widespread gender-based violence from government troops, and the targeting of the UN base here with heavy artillery. Machar and his troops fled for their safety in what they call a tactical withdraw, and Kiir gave a 48-hour ultimatum for him to return to the capital to continue governing. This is the second time that Machar’s forces have been attacked in Juba, and the opposition leader insisted that peacekeepers from East Africa be sent to the capital and other security guarantees be put in place. 

The move is a blow to Machar, who has been a thorn in Kiir’s side more or less since South Sudan’s founding. Last year, the two political rivals were the centerpieces of a peace deal brokered last August by the international community.

The 2013 civil war broke out six months after Kiir dismissed Machar and subsequently accused him of plotting a coup. Fighting kicked off in Juba after Kiir’s forces, who are largely from the Dinka ethnic group, tried to disarm members of Kiir’s presidential guards who were ethnic Nuer. The civil war took on increasingly ethnic undertones — anywhere from 50 to 300,000 people were killed, and more than 2 million displaced. A peace deal was signed in August, but it has been unable to stop the violence. On Friday, the UN said more than 8,300 refugees fled into Uganda on a single day this week.

Deng's appointment appears to throw out nearly a year of carefully crafted negotiations between Kiir and Machar that were bolstered by the United States and a group of East African countries. Diplomats and analysts were cautious on Deng’s appointment as the political situation was still fluid, and could boost support for considering of new options on how to keep the peace. 

Victory for Kiir

The appointment of Deng, which even by South Sudan’s notoriously turbulent standards was high political theater because of the confusion surrounding it, is a political victory for Kiir, who appears to have carefully coopted members of the opposition. A spokesperson for Machar said they have evidence Deng was secretly working with Kiir for many months, but did not give specific information.

On Saturday, Deng insisted that he would hold the position only until Machar returned to Juba, but all signs point to that being a mere formality. Machar's conditions – including outside peacekeepers and steps to guarantee civilians safety in Juba— have been scorned by government officials, and it is unlikely the internal rift between the two camps can be healed.

“We need to save our country,” Deng told a group of about 100 people when he was announced as acting vice president. “There is no going back to war in this country again.”

Saturday’s developments further complicate things. They push Machar and his Nuer constituents to the brink of collapse, making them unpredictable.  Since the fighting in the capital, government and rebel forces have clashed across the country, and security sources say that there are reports of forced recruitment among the government and opposition armies.

Nyarji Roman, a spokesperson for Machar, called Saturday’s moved a “betrayal” and said that the government and officials who elected Deng were acting illegally.

He also said that people within the opposition SPLM-IO have been threatened by the National Security Service, citing a recent attack against Dhieu Mathok, a top opposition politician.

When asked how he would be different from Machar, the newly minted First Vice President Deng was unable to give specifics.

“This is a good question. I have negotiated this peace…….and what will be different is that the presidency works in cooperation….and the agreement works” Deng said. Deng said that he has not been in contact with opposition military officials.

New political frameworks explored

Analysts express uncertainty that Deng's appointment will have much effect.

“I am not sure much would change with Taban Deng as first vice president. He's an extremely experienced politician with solid contacts in Juba, Khartoum as well as Bentiu and, like many other South Sudanese politicians, has allied with pretty much everybody at some point, just as he has also fought pretty much everybody at some point as well,” says Harry Verhoeven, an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Some argue that what is necessary is, essentially, to start the process over.

“The United Nations and African Union will need to impose an international transitional administration for the country that will give pause to stabilize the humanitarian and security situation and allow time for institutions to develop that can manage political competition nonviolently” says Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington D.C. “South Sudan needs a clean break from the current failed approach.”

 In an article co-written with Princeton Lyman, the former US Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Ms. Almquist-Knopf stated that “though seemingly radical, international administration is not unprecedented and has previously been employed to guide Kosovo, East Timor and other countries out of conflict.”

But as new options are explored to keep the peace in South Sudan in the halls of the United Nations, its unclear if they will have any support in Juba.

“I am afraid to call it a new colonialism. South Sudan is being turned into a protectorate, and we will not accept the situation,” says South Sudanese Minister of Information and government spokesperson Michael Makuei. 

One NGO country director based in Juba was dismissive of the idea of temporary administration earlier this year. “South Sudan would rather burn itself to the ground before it let the UN take over,” the director said.

Most civilians simply want peace. They have suffered the most during the civil war, with nearly three-quarters of the country facing food insecurity.

"Every internally displaced person I've ever talked to just wants peace,” said Ashley McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration based in Juba. “A midwife in Malakal told me once ‘Even if all we have to live under is a tree, if we have peace, that is all we need.' "

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