Scepticism and war-weariness on Thursday greeted the latest South Sudan peace deal between the president and main rebel leader aimed at ending a dragging conflict which has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and triggered a regional refugee crisis.
The agreement, brokered by regional bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and signed by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar late on Wednesday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, is the culmination of a months-long revival of negotiations.
In South Sudan’s capital Juba, which witnessed some of the war’s heaviest fighting at its outbreak in December 2013, and again when the last peace deal collapsed in July 2016, there were few celebrations.
Susy William, executive director of the country’s National Alliance for Women’s Lawyers, captured the disappointment of many, who feted a hard-won freedom from Sudan in 2011 only to see a fresh war begin between two of the nation’s independence heroes, just two years later.
“Citizens believed these leaders were not going to take us back to war because these were our leaders who fought for this country, these were the leaders who led us to independence,” she said of Kiir and Machar, former comrades and bush war commanders.
“But the opposite happened: they dragged us back. They have failed to demonstrate their responsibility,” she added.
“These are people who don’t care about us as citizens, but people who care about their positions.”
Under the new agreement, Kiir remains president while Machar wins back his old post of deputy.
South Sudan’s latest war began in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
Several IGAD-brokered peace efforts and ceasefires have since failed, with the last agreement collapsing in July 2016 during days of fighting in the capital Juba that forced Machar to flee for his life.
A return to the status quo, with the same people in the same positions, has disappointed outside observers as well.
Long-time South Sudan watcher John Prendergast of the Enough Project pressure group said the deal has “significant flaws”.
“(It) lacks meaningful checks and balances on a presidency that already wields immense powers, which are primarily used to loot the country’s resources and deploy extreme violence against opponents,” he said.
“This new peace deal fails to undo the theft of government revenue by entrusting the same corrupt politicians without any meaningful checks and balances.”
Diplomats in Addis Ababa tentatively welcomed it as a step in the right direction, but little more.
“Scepticism prevails,” said one. “It’s definitely not perfect,” conceded another.
But for the array of diplomats and leaders pushing for peace over nearly five years, a faulty deal is better than none.
“We remain concerned about the parties’ level of commitment to this agreement,” said a group of ambassadors from Britain, Norway and the US, together known as the Troika, demanding “a significant change in their approach.”
While welcoming the deal the Troika said, “We remain concerned the agreement will not deliver the peace that the people of South Sudan deserve.”
China’s top diplomat for Africa, Xu Jinghu, had a more upbeat assessment, rehashing an old maxim to describe the peace plan as “an exemplary practice of African solutions, by African people, to African issues.”
But this did not find many takers in South Sudan itself.
“The peace deal is signed and it’s better than no deal, but I can only praise the parties if they implement it,” said Mary Nyoka, a teacher in Juba whose experience of the war and the country’s leaders has taught her caution.
William was more pessimistic still. “I don’t think there’s any hope,” she said. – AFP.