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South Sudan’s warring leaders meet for first time in two years in Hail Mary for peace
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The tweeted image shows the two longtime South Sudanese adversaries in a smiling group hug late Wednesday with Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, suggesting that after years of savage fighting there could be peace for the world’s newest country.
Yet even though it was the first meeting between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his bitter rival Riek Machar in two years, it is unlikely that this hug or subsequent talks will end one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.
Tens of thousands of people have died in South Sudan since the civil war, initially between the forces of Machar and Kiir, broke out in 2013, just two years after the oil-rich region seceded from Sudan. Another 4 million have been displaced — making it one of Africa’s largest refugee crises — and the United Nations has pinpointed several regions to be on the brink of famine.
“Whenever and wherever there is war, it is the vulnerable and powerless who suffer most. Women, men and children are uprooted and their lives destroyed,” said Janardhan Rao, the director of Mercy Corpos in the country. “Now, those with the power have a chance to agree an urgent and immediate truce and put in place the building blocks for long-term peace.”
After being instrumental in its creation and spending billions of dollars to develop it, the United States has been increasingly losing patience with the country, calling for an arms embargo.
“We have lost patience with the status quo. We must change course if we are to save a generation of South Sudanese,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations , said in a recent opinion piece. “The leaders of South Sudan are responsible for protecting these children, and they have failed them. We have no more time to waste on empty promises.”
A peace agreement in 2015, also marked by smiles and handshakes between the two, dissolved into renewed fighting in July 2016 and Machar barely escaped the capital Juba with his life. He eventually ended up under house arrest in South Africa.
Two years of fruitless talks later, the conflict has been grinding on and now Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy called the two warring leaders together for a meeting ahead of Thursday’s latest round of talks, sponsored by the Eastern African group of nations known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
“Faced with the continued suffering in South Sudan, Ethiopia simply can’t stand by. With more work, a peaceful future is possible in S. Sudan,”announced Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega on Twitter, including photos of the meeting and hug.
Yet in the years nations have spent attempting to bring the warring sides together, the conflict has metastized, spreading beyond just the ethnic battles between Machar’s Nuer and Kirr’s Dinka groups to other parts of the countries and different factions.
“The resultant fragmentation in South Sudan now belies a narrow consideration of the conflict as between Machar’s Nuer and Kiir’s Dinka alliances,” noted a briefing paper by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
In addition to putting in place repeatedly violated cease-fires, the talks are trying to set up a power-sharing agreement that so far has been consistently rejected by the opposition as too beneficial to Kiir’s government.
The United States and the other partners in the mediation have also been unable to agree on measures to pressure the participants.
“The African Union and IGAD have also recently ramped up threats of sanctions and punitive measures, but it is unlikely that these will be implemented,” noted the institute’s report. “Without decisive and far-reaching international enforcement measures, there is little hope for peace in South Sudan.”
Ethiopia’s new push to get the main antagonists in the battle to talk directly to each other is the latest move in the years-long efforts to end the fighting but it is unclear if it can push Kiir, the incumbent leader who holds most of the cards, into some kind of deal.
Alan Boswell, an analyst on South Sudan, said part of the problem is that everyone is still working in the framework of the 2015 peace deal which ultimately did not succeed.
“They might be able to get people to lay down the guns right not but that doesn’t address the long standing issues,” he noted. “It’s underappreciated how much the collapse of the previous peace deal expanded the conflict and made it so much worse for the South Sudanese.”
He described Abiy’s latest mediation as “chucking a Hail Mary with a nuclear bomb,” a kind of dangerous last-minute attempt that might work or “it will explode and that’s what happened in 2016.”
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