The government of South Sudan has signed a ceasefire agreement with the delegation of rebel leader Dr. Riek Machar today, but the government has expressed some doubt as to whether the rebel delegation will be able to implement the ceasefire. The agreement is set to take effect within 24 hours, proposedly ending the conflict that has raged for 5 weeks.
Negotiations have been ongoing formally since January 5. The two main sticking points of the negotiations involve 11 political detainees being held in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and the military activity of the Ugandan army in South Sudan on the side of the government. The 11 detainees were taken in to custody immediately after the conflict broke out December 15, and the demands of Dr. Riek Machar for their release as a precondition to peace negotiations have stalled progress at the negotiation table since the outset. President Salva Kiir has replied to Machar’s demands by explaining that the detainees were arrested and charged as criminals and must be processed legally before release.
The second point of contention, the Ugandan military presence, has been characterized by the rebels as foreign military interference in a national conflict. Uganda has been criticized for their participation on the grounds that their military activity could be seen as compromising their status as mediator at the bargaining table. Uganda has replied to these criticisms by stating that they had entered South Sudan at the request of the South Sudanese government and in the interests of protecting their civilians, who had been trapped in South Sudan after the fighting broke out, as well as to protect infrastructure.
The cessation of hostilities agreement signed Thursday is not a full peace agreement. Thursday’s agreement is merely a first step towards a full truce, which will still require serious negotiation. The cessation is to start within 24 hours. However, the government of South Sudan has expressed doubt as to whether the rebel delegation or Dr. Machar can call off the various rebel forces active in many locations in South Sudan.
The government of South Sudan, which has been reiterating its willingness to sign a peace agreement since negotiations began, issued messages that they hoped that with the ceasefire, the rebel groups would lay down their weapons. The government was not certain, however, that the people responsible for signing the agreement had sufficient control or command of the rebels to implement it.
The rebel position has been weakened in recent weeks. Rebel groups have seized control of several towns and regions. Three main towns were held by rebels–Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu, each in different states–but two of these towns were completely retaken by the government recently. All three towns are utterly decimated by the war. Mediators at the peace talks have commented that the willingness of parties to sign peace agreements and the general progress of peace negotiations have been affected by wins and losses on the battlefields of South Sudan.
The conflict, which began as a disagreement within the ranks of the Presidential guard in Juba December 15, has caused the deaths of thousands of people and caused massive civilian displacement and material damage. Half a million people have become displaced. UN compounds house 70,000 of these displaced people. A similar number has fled across South Sudan’s borders. UN agencies have been looted and robbed. Some aid agencies have been forced to withdraw. Towns have been burned to ashes and the property of shops and stores has been completely destroyed.
No one is certain of the exact cause of the initial row–the story of what took place varies depending on who is asked. No one is certain either whether the ceasefire signed in the name of all warring South Sudanese will be able to bring ultimate peace, but the government has doubts.
By Day Blakely Donaldson