South Sudan struggles to avert 'catastrophe'
18 July 2016, 13:59
Juba – Street sweepers in South Sudan's capital
Juba have cleaned up the blood and bullet casings after gun battles at the
presidential palace, but salvaging peace will be a far harder task, analysts
A shaky ceasefire has held since fighting that
raged in Juba last week, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands to flee
The country's peace agreement is in tatters, but
diplomats balk at throwing it away entirely.
AU special envoy Alpha Oumar Konare has pleaded for
the deal to be rebuilt, warning that the consequences of failure are dire.
"If we cannot stop, it will be a
catastrophe," he said.
The violence, which dominated an African Union
summit on Sunday, is the latest in a war that broke out in December 2013.
It has pitted soldiers loyal to President Salva
Kiir against troops backing his long-time rival Vice-President Riek Machar, who
technically ended his rebellion to forge a unity government in April.
'Leaders have failed'
Hopes are low, however. After a string of failed
peace deals, diplomats' faith in the two top men is at breaking point.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the people
"have been let down by their own leadership" and called for more
sanctions on those blocking peace, an arms embargo, and to bolster the 12 000-strong
UN peacekeeping force.
It is a message echoed by veteran journalist Alfred
Taban, arrested on Saturday after he wrote in an editorial in the Juba Monitor
that the leaders had "completely failed".
Academic Alex de Waal has warned he fears the
political system may be "too deformed to be reformed".
For now, the grossly impoverished nation "can
only function either with a well-financed big man or a ruthless enforcer at the
top", de Waal said in a recent article.
But with the government both nearly bankrupt and
unable to impose order, neither option works, he said.
"The country is too diverse and its
communities too well armed for an old-style dictatorship to be possible, even
if it were a morally acceptable option," he added.
But for those trying to stop South Sudan from
collapsing entirely, even a flawed peace deal is better than none at all.
"For internationals to dismiss the agreement
as irrelevant or unsalvageable at this stage would only play into the hands of
those hardliners that seek continued military confrontation," said former
ceasefire monitor Aly Verjee.
Machar has been in hiding since the July 8 battles
at the presidential palace, and the country will remain in limbo until new
political and military deals are struck.
His men were forced to flee as tanks and helicopter
gunships pounded their positions with overwhelming firepower.
It remains unclear what force he can still command,
and his authority over his generals and troops is also in question.
Casie Copeland, of the International Crisis Group,
said it was the best peace that could be made at the time, preventing an
escalation of the conflict.
"It halted the fighting, created a framework
for reform, transitional justice and elections and prevented regional powers
being further sucked into South Sudan's war," Copeland said.
The situation is dire. Over a third of South
Sudan's population are expected to face severe food shortages over the coming
months, and there is a real risk of what the UN has termed a "hunger
The economy is in ruins with runaway inflation and
people are suffering.
'No future here'
The peace deal was based on buying loyalty with
power and cash, two critical elements never delivered.
Kiir undermined the fundamental power-sharing
pillar of the deal by nearly tripling regional states, while oil cash that
bought support and once provided some 98% of government revenues has gone.
Production was cut due to fighting, while a global
slump in prices meant that what landlocked Juba earned for its crude about
equalled its pipeline export payments to Khartoum.
It is doubtful at best if the rivals could even
claw back the peace deal to the status quo - but critics say that placing two
rival armies in the same city without integration was always a recipe for
"It placed the security of the capital city
Juba jointly in the hands of the two deeply hostile forces," said de Waal,
who has spent years involved in peace negotiations in Sudan and South Sudan,
saying Juba was "arm twisted" by the international community to
For now, more peacekeepers and the threat of
sanctions seem the international community's main options.
But more peacekeepers may not make the UN mission
any more effective.
The UN has been widely criticised for failing to
intervene, instead hunkering down inside its bases, where over half of the
peacekeepers are tied up guarding 160 000 civilians sheltering behind razor
"We can't continue like this for ever,"
said vegetable seller Rebekah Joseph, a mother-of-three who fled the fighting
for shelter in a church in Juba.
"I'm going home to my village when it is safe,
for there seems no future here, because nothing ever changes," she said.