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Machar’s return signals a significant stage in South Sudan’s peace process

South Sudan’s Riek Machar after peace talks with South Sudan President Salva Kiir in July 2018. EPA-EFE/Stringer

South Sudan’s opposition leader Riek Machar has returned to the country’s capital Juba after more than two years in exile. Machar was the country’s Vice President between July 2011 and July 2013. In this time, he sought leadership of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which was headed by Salva Kiir. The power struggle between the two men turned violent in December 2013. Machar fled and formed an armed rebellion. In August 2015, the government and Machar’s opposition reached an agreement under which Machar once again became Vice President. This prompted his return in 2016. But months later fighting broke out again and he had to flee once more. Two years later Machar has once again made the journey to Juba. The Conversation Africa spoke to conflict resolution researcher Peter Run on what this means for the country’s governance and its long-suffering population.

How significant is Machar’s return for South Sudan’s peace process?

Very significant, for two main reasons.

First, Machar’s decision to return sends a message to his supporters and the general public that he has faith in the revised peace agreement. He even arrived in Juba without his own military escort. The courage to take a step that makes him vulnerable gives the appearance that he has faith in the peace process. And appearances matter a great deal at the implementation stage of any peace agreement.

Second, Machar’s presence in the country will open up the possibility for his opposition and the government to communicate, in the first instance, with each other, as well as people who have borne the brunt of the conflict that’s induced famine and caused thousands of people to flee areas affected by the fighting.

Machar’s return is likely to solidify the permanent ceasefire that was signed as part of the peace agreement. Throughout the negotiations, successive ceasefires have been violated by both sides. An effective ceasefire will increase access to conflict-affected areas and general security in most of the country. This in turn will make conditions safe for humanitarian aid to be delivered.

Machar was received by President Salva Kiir. The two, along with the leaders of neighbouring countries, then celebrated the peace deal with the citizens of Juba. The agreement makes Machar a First Vice President. There will be four other vice presidential posts. The agreement also stipulates elaborate power sharing arrangements that satisfy both the government and the opposition.

Peace in the country would break years of continual conflict. Since the outbreak of war in 2013, trade route with Uganda, which links the country to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, was jeopardised. Food imports from Uganda were momentarily affected. Inflation soared and famine began to lurk.

In addition, the conflict plunged the country into a deep economic pit. Fighting halted oil production, which is the country’s main source of income. It also stopped the development of infrastructure projects making it difficult for food and medicine to reach areas that are in need.

So what has changed in South Sudan since the most recent agreement?

Targeted sanctions from the US have been bemoaned by South Sudanese elites. US sanctions against firms and individuals have contributed to the economic troubles of South Sudan and look set to make things much worse if war continues. Peace is the best way out of economic crisis.

The government has also reached a state of internal paranoia about more rebellion. Earlier this year, former army chief of staff, Paul Malong was accused of plotting rebellion. More recently, activist Peter Biar Ajak was arrested, allegedly for planning to meet with rebels. Whatever the truth, these preemptive detentions don’t look good. They inspire international criticism about human rights abuses.

Calls for South Sudan to respect human rights have increased, especially from countries that are sponsoring the peace agreement.

What has yet to change?

Many observers have concluded that the main cause of the conflict is rivalry between Kiir and Machar which is often said to be ethnicised or tribalised.

This view of the conflict has informed the way the peace agreement has been framed on successive occasions. But the problem is bigger and broader. The nature of the country’s institutional structures has been integral to the evolution of the ongoing conflict.

Under the transitional constitution, the presidency is invested with unchecked powers. The president can appoint and sack almost any public official at both federal and state levels. This concentration of power has devalued other key leadership positions and was one of the main reasons that caused the SPLM to split.

Machar’s participation in a transitional government of national unity is likely to facilitate an integration of opposition forces into the national army and reduce the risk of violating the permanent ceasefire.

The changes to institutional arrangements envisaged under the peace agreement might help in the short term. But in the long run the changes might spell trouble. An executive government that grows in size – as the South Sudanese government is due to do after the peace agreement comes into force – without delivering any social services is a government that feeds on its population. These kinds of governments are often unresponsive to public sentiments. That, on its own, is a recipe for instability.

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