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Dwindling hopes for South Sudan cease-fire agreement

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar had barely agreed on a cease-fire when only a few hours later both sides accused each other of violating the agreement.

On Saturday (10.05.2014), Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a hopeful statement on the new South Sudan cease-fire agreement. He praised the "prudent and persistent" mediation by Ethiopia and the East African regional body IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) and applauded the agreement as "an important step on the path to a political resolution of the conflict." Barely 24 hours later the "sign of hope" Steinmeier invoked appeared to be fading.

Both camps let the guns do the talking and in their customary manner accused each other of cease-fire violations. Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juk accused rebel forces of having attacked government positions in the oil fields around the northern town of Bentiu on Sunday morning. He said the army had killed 27 attackers and seized weapons. A spokesman for the opposition forces, Brigadier General Lul Ruai Kong, in turn reported government attacks in two provinces. Militias from the country's northern neighbor Sudan were fighting alongside the South Sudanese army, Kong alleged. "The latest violations of the agreement to resolve the crisis in South Sudan show that Kiir is either insincere or not in control of his forces," he said.

Power struggle out of control on the ground

After signing the agreement on Friday night, the two rivals, President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, made encouraging statements.

Rebel leader Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir hold a priest's hands in prayer. Photo: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The cease-fire deal signed by rebel leader Machar (r) and South Sudan's President Kiir (l) is shaky

Kiir assured those present "that the party and the army I am leading will implement this agreement without failure." And Machar declared that what South Sudan needed was peace, not a "senseless war."

The international pressure that had led to the renewed cease-fire apparently only reached the political level. The statement made by forces loyal to Machar that Kiir was not in control of his troops goes to the core of the matter, but it holds true for both sides. "The conflict can no longer be reduced to two political camps," DW reporter Jan-Phillip Scholz observed. "It has already taken on an ethnic dimension in day-to-day life. A wrong greeting can be enough spark violence between Dinkas and Nuer." Although there are also prominent Dinkas - the ethnic group the president belongs to - who support Machar's political demands, the enraged, often ill-informed masses have long stopped making such distinctions. Dinkas and Nuer are attacking each other with unbelievable brutality. The power struggle is escalating.

A woman prepares a meal at the Bor camp. Photo: REUTERS/Carl Odera

The humanitarian situation is becoming more precarious by the day, with little time left to avert a famine

Representatives of aid organizations, such as the country director of Germany's development organization GIZ, Bodo Immink, openly speak of a civil war. The 12,500-strong UNMISS peacekeeping force is hardly capable of protecting all of the internally displaced people, whose number has swollen to 1.3 million. The situation in the overcrowded camps is catastrophic. According to the World Food Program (WFP), 3.2 million people are in need of food aid, but even emergency aid cannot reach them because of the fighting. If the farmers cannot plant their crops in the coming weeks, the WFP estimates that three-quarters of the population will face a "hunger catastrophe." Therefore, even in Germany there are demands that the UN mission be strengthened. For instance, Germany's commissioner for human rights, Christoph Strässer, says, "If the United Nations were to request it, then we should fulfill the requests and send more German peacekeepers."

Vague hopes for a political solution by 2015

The German EU ambassador to South Sudan, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, however, does not think that is a good idea. In a DW interview, he stressed that South Sudan "is a wholly unfamiliar terrain for German soldiers." During the rainy season, the ambassador pointed out, the landscape was turned into one big swamp, where conditions became very difficult. "When you're in one of the refugee camps during the rainy season, the water reaches up to your knees. I think African soldiers are better suited to cope with a mission like that. That's why we have a lot of Ethiopians, Rwandans, and Ugandans here. What's more, there are few German interests, such as German citizens or investments, to defend," he said.

Bandaged victims of the fighting are sitting and lying on mats.

Massacres have raised fears of a genocide

So far only 15 Germans are being deployed in the UN mission, serving as police officers and observers. Others will therefore have to deal with the situation: mostly the African troops on the ground. They have run into particular resistance from rebel leader Riek Machar. He wants to prevent an expansion of the UN mission under the auspices of IGAD. He told DW in early April that IGAD wanted to station its soldiers in the oil fields and the government wanted to use the revenue from the oil to buy weapons, which it would then use against the armed opposition.

Even the first step, a stable cease-fire, seems to be enormously difficult for both sides. South Sudan, the world's youngest country, has a lot of oil, but it is still stuck in a mentality of rivalry. The next step is for the parties to work toward the establishment of a transitional government, which would ultimately guide the country to free and fair presidential elections in 2015. It almost sounds visionary. "The implementation is always the most difficult part," the EU diplomat Kühn von Burgsdorff commented laconically. All the same, there is no alternative.

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