Against the background of renewed fighting between government and rebel forces in South Sudan, regional and security experts have met to debate the diminishing prospects for peace after more than 15 months of conflict.
Speaking at a one-day security seminar in Nairobi on Wednesday (18.03.2015), Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Strategic Studies, questioned the viability of any future unity government that included President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar.
Following the latest outbreak of heavy fighting between government and rebel forces, Kisiangani said that for there to be any chance of a long-lasting peace, South Sudan's new government should not include either of the two leaders.
"Ideally I think that is the best option if the two leaders can give way to a neutral person to lead," Kisiangani said. But, he added, this is easier said than done "because practically if you need to get the president out of the office, he will argue that he has a term of office."
But Dalmas Ochieng, a specialist on South Sudan at the Nairobi branch of the African Research and Resource Forum, said sidelining the two leaders was not a solution to restoring permanent peace in South Sudan.
"Their constituents will not take that lying down because they [the leaders] have a certain legitimacy, and unless they are convinced about the reasons as to why they need to be sidelined, I think that is postponing [an end to] the conflict in South Sudan," Ochieng said.
Heavy human toll
The debate may turn out to be academic as, on Wednesday, President Kiir rejected two key components of a draft power-sharing deal between himself and rebel leader Machar. Speaking at a rally in Juba, Kiir opposed the idea of making Machar his vice president and objected to the creation of two armies for a transitional period.
The 15-month-old conflict between Kiir and his former deputy has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced at least 1.5 million. More than 50,000 have crossed the border into Ethiopia in search of refuge.
Rights groups have accused both sides of ethnic-based atrocities, mass rapes and using child soldiers. Elizabeth Ashamu, South Sudan researcher for London-based rights group Amnesty International said war crimes and crimes against humanity had been documented "committed by both sides to the conflict."
David Deng, Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society, who also participated in the seminar in Nairobi, said the suffering caused by the ongoing conflict has greatly harmed the people of South Sudan. "Life is becoming more and more difficult. So I think what's on everyone's mind is how to end this conflict as soon as possible," he said.
Still hoping for peace
Repeated rounds of peace talks between the two parties have yielded only partial results. Both sides agreed in principle to share power but have failed to agree on how that would work in practice. The latest round of peace talks brokered by the East Africa regional bloc IGAD in Ethiopia broke down early this month.
A grim picture of life in South Sudan was painted by South Sudanese businessman Joash Okot. "The country is polarized. People are divided," Okot told the Nairobi seminar, adding that the conflict had given the young nation a bad name. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011.
However, Okot tried to remain optimistic. ""We are hopeful that one day the two leaders will make compromises for the sake of peace, for the vulnerable people on the ground," he said.
But as long as President Kiir and Riek Machar continue to put personal political
ambitions above the need for peace, that day seems far off.