Despite its declared willingness to negotiate the army is advancing against rebels in southern Sudan. Martin Petry believes that the warring factions will reach a compromise. But until then much blood could flow.
DW: Mr. Petry, the South Sudanese government has agreed to negotiate with the rebels without preconditions. At the same time, the government troops are continuing their offensive in the east of the country to retake the town of Bor. Is there a chance for a peaceful solution?
Martin Petry: I think the offers for negotiations by President Salva Kiir, but also by his rival Riek Machar have come mainly due to international pressure by the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development, based in Djibouti), the African Union and the United Nations. How such a discussion could actually take place, is completely open. Of course, Salva Kiir wants to stay in power and Riek Machar wants to come to power. So there are also games that are being played. When discussions could take place, is still open. Until then, both sides try to take military action in order to be in good positions in possible negotiations.
How do you see the probability of power-sharing? Or is it inevitable that both parties will fight to the bitter end?
Eventually there will be negotiations, because there simply is no other option. The country is deeply divided. A line of conflict between Nuer and Dinka is in focus now. But there are many other conflicts about other topics and also along other ethnic boarders. Everyone knows there are no winners in this complex conflict in the long run. There must be negotiations for a division of power. But it is hard to imagine what they might look at the moment.
How can the United Nations, the US or the Europeans put pressure on the parties in the conflict?
South Sudan is a very poor country. The whole development towards independence was strongly supported by the international community and by many foreign donors. No matter who will lead South Sudan, he is dependent on the cooperation with neighboring countries and with the international community and must show courtesy.
The country is bitterly poor, but the ruling party SPLM and the army are considered to be well equipped with weapons and money.
What is SPLM? It is no more than a compromise formula of various strong men from various militias. It is not a united liberation movement, as one might think. There have always been splits, and then groups have come back and gone again. All units are highly armed and there is an enormous potential for destruction. Much of the money from oil has gone into the armament with the aim to stage further violent conflicts with the northern neighbor Sudan.
The big question is how those who are responsible for and control deal with this potential. One has the impression that it is currently just about to fight to gain power. But no matter who wins, they must build good relations with the international community, so that the country can continue to develop. There is no other option if they want to stay in power. No one knows when that will happen and how much still needs to be destroyed before they get there.
The East African Community has laid down the rule that if an elected president is deposed by a coup d'état, the direct successor will not stand for election or should ever be president.
True. But whether that was an attempted coup in South Sudan is still open. This is the official version. If it was the other way, as Riek Machar is claiming, that Salva Kiir and the government wanted to arrest as many members of the opposition as possible in order to silence them, then the situation is different. Then the East African Community is expected to handle it differently.
Western countries such as Germany, the US and Great Britain are evacuating their citizens, even the ambassadors. Organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), however, want to stick around. How can they currently work there?
According to the latest reports of OCHA (Coordination Office of the UN Emergency Relief) there are more than 62,000 internally displaced persons due to the events of last week. These are dramatic numbers. These people need to be supported. Relief organizations will try to find ways for that. The way I see it this is approved by the two parties in the conflict. The situation is different for development agencies or organizations for peace and human rights, like the work that I've done in the last five years in southern Sudan. At the moment we are trying to keep our structures so that once there is stability we can get back to work.
How visible are the UN troops in the country, what role do they play?
The UN soldiers are visible. They are there, but have a very limited mandate. But when conflicts come to a head, as in the state of Jonglei in recent years, one cannot really expect help from the UN force. They try to protect and enable humanitarian aid. But they cannot take any military action to prevent or stop violence.
Martin Petry is a consultant for various development agencies. In southern Sudan, he regularly works for the Dutch Catholic charity Cordaid.
Interview by Lina Hoffmann