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No peace in South Sudan

Daniel Pelz /aelJanuary 24, 2014

The South Sudanese government under Salva Kiir and rebels fighting for former vice president Riek Machar have agreed a ceasefire. But the fighting in South Sudan is far from over, says Daniel Pelz.

Daniel Pelz
Image: DW

No, the violence in South Sudan is not at an end, far from it. The representatives of both sides can sign as many ceasefire agreements as they want in Addis Ababa but if the government and rebels are really serious, they will have to do more than just cease the current hostilities and release political prisoners. They ought to be rebuilding South Sudan from scratch - but I doubt whether they are either willing or able to do this.

President Salva Kiir has so far not yet shone as a far-sighted statesman. Under the leadership of the ex-rebel, who likes to pose in public with a cowboy hat, the country is increasingly coming to resemble a military dictatorship. It is not parliament or the courts which have the final say in South Sudan, but a small group of leaders and allies of the South Sudan People's Liberation Front (SPLM).

For more than 20 years, the SPLM fought as a rebel army for the independence of the south, which was then still part of Sudan. Since independence in 2011, they have been acting as if the state were their property. Ministers steal billions from the state budget, army and police are accused of human rights violations. Even before the conflict between Riek Machar and Salva Kiir escalated, ethnic conflicts were breaking out throughout the country - the government responded by sending troops. President Kiir did nothing to stop this. He neither implemented the long-awaited army reform, nor did he fire corrupt ministers. A law to protect the press was put on hold for months. High positions in the state apparatus went to former SPLM fighters - even without the necessary qualifications. Riek Machar went along with this. Until his dismissal last year, he was the vice-president and thus Kiir's deputy.

Power struggle

It is hard to imagine that the man of power Salva Kiir is now suddenly taking a different tack by standing up for functioning institutions and accepting criticism from civil society or the media. But if that doesn't happen and millions of South Sudanese continue to feel that the government does not care about them, then it will be easier in future for people like Riek Machar to incite militias to act against the government.

A lasting peace in South Sudan is also only possible if the government actively encourages development. In spite of enormous oil reserves, South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Regarding maternal and child mortality, it is one of the front runners, and more than 70 percent of people still cannot read and write. The journey to the nearest hospital can take days in some parts of the country while the government left the job of expanding the education and social sectors to foreign donors and non-governmental organizations. At the same time the government of South Sudan earns money from its oil reserves but Kiir and Machar preferred to allocate this income to the bloated army.

After independence in 2011, many south Sudanese hoped for a better life. But now many of them are suffering from hunger or they have to watch their children die from diarrhea or typhoid - and they become easy prey for those who are looking for anti-government fighters in Juba.

Many contracts, little security

There is also another reason why peace in South Sudan is not in sight. Former Vice-President Machar and the other leaders of his rebel coalition are not interested in safeguarding democracy and helping marginalized communities get their rights, as they publicly claim. Machar is a man of power. Back in the civil war in the 1990s, when northern Sudan and the rebel South Sudan People's Liberation Front were fighting, Machar changed sides. At times he fought against his former SPLM allies - even on behalf of the North. As long as people like him have no problem with unleashing a bloody conflict in order to secure their own power and gain access to South Sudan's oil reserves, the country will not find peace.

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have already signed many pacts, whenever this was necessary to retain their hold on power. This truce is just another such agreement. If one side believes it can achieve more on the battlefield than at the negotiating table, the conflict can boil up again very quickly. The victims are, as always, the people of South Sudan.