A delegation from Kenya and Ethiopia has been in South Sudan’s capital Juba to push for a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, following an attempted coup two weeks ago.
The Juba talks came shortly after the United Nations and the United States called on Kiir and Machar to hold talks to settle their political differences peacefully. Fighting between their rival supporters has forced more than sixty thousand people to take refuge at United Nations compounds in the country's ten states. The UN says thousands more have been killed.
The high-powered delegation was led by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is also chairman of the five-nation East African Community, ECA. Also in the delegation was Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Ethiopia's Foreign Affairs Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a statement to journalists in Juba that, while short on content, indicated that the peacemaking efforts would continue.
"We are here to understand the situation first hand and I would like to inform you that we had a very productive meeting with his Excellency President Salva Kiir and we will continue the consultations," the minister said.
As the talks were taking place, fighting was reported to be raging in the country's oil-rich north.
In an interview with DW's Africalink program, Dr Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, said that countries bordering on South Sudan had "a huge stake" in what happens there.
"The country has been unstable for some time, it's been prone to violence, it has been engaged in a civil war for decades, and even following the elections in 2011 there has been ongoing violence, also with its neighbor to the north, Sudan. So the entire international community, including the United Nations and the UN Security Council, are trying to find a way of bringing the factions to the table," Cilliers said.
Urgent need for political dialogue
These efforts have so far proved unsuccesful. Former Vice-President Riek Machar is believed to be commanding his rebel military forces from a secret location on the outskirts of Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity State. Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, has repeatedly said he will only meet President Kiir, a Dinka, once he releases a dozen detained prominent members of the South Sudan People's Liberation Movement, SPLM.
The meeting in Juba came shortly after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasised how important it was for South Sudan's leaders to settle their political differences peacefully.
"This is a political crisis and urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue. There is a risk of this violence spreading to other states as we have already seen some signs of this," Ban said.
These remarks were echoed by the United States' representative at the UN, Samantha Power. "The leaders of South Sudan face a stark choice. They can return to the political dialogue spirit of cooperation that helped establish South Sudan or they can destroy those hard fought gains and tear apart their new born nation. The future of South Sudan is in jeopardy and this moment demands urgent leadership to avoid bloodshed and to restore stability," Power said.
South Sudan became Africa's newest state two years ago when it won independence from the Republic of Sudan and its capital Khartoum.
UN assurances and further talks
The UN has reiterated that it will not abandon the more than sixty thousand people who have taken refuge at its various compounds throughout South Sudan.
UN representative in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, said new UN teams had been sent to all sites accommodating displaced people. This involved relocating "peaceekeepers from locations that are less critical at this point in time to reinforce our bases in Juba, in Bor, in Bentiu."
Dr Cilliers referred to a recent ISS study which examined the long term challenges. "The reality is that a country like South Sudan is going to remain fragile and potentially unstable for decades ahead," he said. "The problems are not recent so one should not have unrealistic expectations about what the timeframe is in which this can be resolved."
Further talks under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are scheduled to take place in Nairobi on Friday December 27.