The announcement by the regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) postponing the second round of South Sudan talks, was a signal to the region and the millions of the suffering South Sudanese that the conflict in South Sudan is still far from over.
The South Sudanese who for decades have suffered because of the conflict, will again painfully wait for the resumption of the seemingly unending negotiations.
Though all the actors in the conflict principally agreed to the urgent need for peace, the difficult demands, accusations and counter-accusations are diverting them from the grail.
It’s not only finger-pointing that is derailing the process. It is increasingly becoming difficult to even keep following which opposition party(ies) are negotiating with the government because the list of opposition parties is on the increase and each has come with more difficult demands.
When the talks began three years ago, there were only three parties in the talks — the government, SPLM-IO and the former four political detainees; Pag’an Amum Okiech, the former secretary general of the ruling SPLM party, former deputy defence minister Majak D’Agoot, Oyai Deng Ajak, former national security minister, and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who served as head of the government liaison office in the United States.
But now, 11 parties are involved in the talks. These include Juba government, SPLM-IO and nine opposition parties under the South Sudan Opposition Alliance.
There are unconfirmed reports that even former army chief, Gen Paul Malong, and his supporters who have been mobilising for war against government might join the negotiations.
With these increasing numbers that come with all sorts of demands, Igad is now in a complicated position because the parties have failed to agree on the “Declaration of Principles” where the parties were supposed to agree on how the negotiations should go. With this stalemate, Igad is now pursing shuttle diplomacy to build consensus.
The chairperson of the council of minister, Mr Workneh Gebeyehu, announced the postponement of the talks two weeks ago, saying there were many gaps that needed to be filled.
But as pre-talks meetings and consultations go on, one thing still remains clear-South Sudan is still hurting and the people are hurting the more.
During the SPLM-IO leaders’ meeting with their supporters in Uganda on Thursday in Bugolobi, a South Sudanese woman broke down and cried.
Tired of war
She said, “We are tired of our war, our children our suffering, we are refugees! When will this end?”
Another one followed suit. She told the SPLM-IO leaders to go to Juba and directly talk to the Salva Kiir regime instead of “running around regional capitals.”
These two women received tumultuous applauds from the members. This was clear—people are tired of being refugees. They are tired of war. South Sudan has been in conflict since 1955 when the first Sudanese separatist army waged war commonly known as Anyanya rebellion against Khartoum government.
During the same meeting, the SPLM-IO listed its demands to President Kiir government on the economy, security and politics, which the Juba regime has dismissed.
Ms Angelina Jany Teny, the wife of the opposition leader Riek Machar, says if her husband is not released from “incarceration” in South Africa, and prisoners of war and political detainees also released, they will not go back to Juba.
“Juba is not willing to release political detainees. Maj James Gatdet has been sentenced to death. This is clear evidence that they are not interested in peace. The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement collapsed. What’s happening in South Unity State is unfortunate. Soldiers are raping women,” she says.
Maj Gatdet, the former spokesman of rebel leader Riek Machar, was in February sentenced to death over treason and incitement against the state. This was after he was deported from exile in Kenya and taken to South Sudan, a move that was criticised by the human rights activists.
The reason for his deportation was not well explained but it came after he supported the sacking of the Kenyan military general who was the commander of UN troops in South Sudan.
The other prominent political detainees that the opposition is pushing for their release include Samuel Dong Luak, Aggrey Idri and Micheal Kuodor.
Ms Teny says for the last one week, some people in the Nuer dominated State have been stuck in swamps where they have been hiding.
“Someone was eaten by big fish the other day. Even those in hiding are being targeted. The reason [for targeting them] is that because chairman [Dr Machar] happens to come from there,” she says.
She says Kiir regime has lost legitimacy and therefore it should be dismantled. This is one of the hardest demands the opposition is making. In response, President Kiir has sworn not to go.
“They [opposition] think that I am the obstacle to peace, and if I am removed after signing the agreement, then there will be no problem. They want me to sign the agreement and then step down immediately …What will be my incentive in bringing peace?” Mr Kiir was quoted by South Sudan media last week.
“What is my incentive if it is peace that I will bring and then step aside? Nobody can do it,”
Kiir says his opponents are making “impossible” demands. But during the same meeting, when SPLM-IO deputy chairman Henry Dilah Iluya Odwar, took the microphone after Ms Teny’s address, the attendees were in high spirits chanting; viva Odwar viva, Riek Machar Viva, SPLM-IO viva. He told supporters that the opposition is well grounded and will not be defeated.
Talks with Museveni
On the previous night, President Museveni had held talks with Mr Odwar, Ms Teny and eight others.
“Last night, we met President Museveni and we had a good exchange. Today [on Friday], he is going to Juba, that’s if he is not already there! He will be speaking in the ears of Salva Kiir. He will be speaking words of peace,” the soft-spoken Geophysicist paused for a minute and chanted SPLM-IO viva, and the attendees replied in unison, viva.
He said SPLM-IO had been “maligned” and described as an organisation of warmongers.
“But if we were not interested, why would we go to Addis Ababa for talks? he asked, referring to the Igad Council of Ministers’ statement issued recently, telling the SPLM-IO to denounce violence.
“This is the point the Igad Council of Ministers has missed,” he said.
Mr Odwar says SPLM-IO is only defending itself and its people because violence was imposed on them.
“Even after signing the agreement, the government was on the offensive, killing people, torturing civilians. The devastation in terms of looting is unimaginable and this, we continue to protest, not only to the Igad summit but also at the international arena.”
But government has dismissed these allegations.
Mr Odwar says they went for the peace process with conviction that peace would return but the government has become an “obstacle”.
He, however, warned: “Those who think we have no guns, are mistaken.”
What opposition wants
The opposition insists on having an all-inclusive national army. They say the current army is tribal and this is the cause of the turbulence.
The opposition also wants a federal system with a lean central government.
Currently, South Sudan has a Cabinet of over 30 ministers and 400 MPs. But there are reports that government wants to increase the number of MPs to 440.
For SPLM-IO to return to Juba, they want 3,700 of their fighters deployed there and also have international community offer security to its leaders.
In 2016, when Dr Machar returned to Juba, only 1,500 soldiers were deployed, a number that could not defend him when fighting started in July 2016. But this time, the opposition wants assurances that this cannot happen again. Those security assurances the opposition wants include; cantoning all military personnel, demilitarising all big towns, big guns be put in stores and guarded by the international agencies.
As Odwar and Ms Teny were holding this meeting in Kampala, President Museveni was on the plane to Juba where he later addressed the Fourth Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) National Liberation Council Meeting.
Mr Museveni told warring factions to drop violence as a means of conflict resolution, saying it was inappropriate.
“When it comes to a political disagreement like we have here (South Sudan), we must have a scientific approach to its resolution, should it be resolved by force or other ways? Force should be reserved for the enemy. A disagreement among brothers should not be resolved by force,” President Museveni said.
Whatever the political differences, President Museveni told the South Sudan leaders to embrace dialogue and work towards having national elections.
“Some people have been coming to Uganda. Malong [Paul] and others. They come and talk to our people. They want to start a war because they claim Salva Kiir is being controlled by some elders. But should that be cause for war?” Museveni asked.
He described the deployment of Ugandan troops in 2013 to protect President Kiir as an opportunity he could not turn down to help SPLM reunite after Kiir asked him to help.
Parties participating in negotiations
1. Juba Government
2. SPLM-IO- Henry Odwar
3. Former Detainees- Pagan Amum Okiech
4. National Salvation Front- Gen Cyrilo Swaka
5.Sudan People’s Liberation Movement - Democratic Change- Lam Akol
6. People’s Democratic Movement- Dr Hakim Dario Moi
7. South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SSLM/A-) -Gen Bapiny Monytuil
8. South Sudan Liberation Movement for Change- Governor Joseph Bangasi Bakosoro
9. United Democratic Republic Alliance (UDRA) Thomas Tut Doap
10. South Sudan Unity Movement/Army – Gen Peter Gadet
11. SSPM - Dr Constello Garang Ring