By Steve Paterno
December 27, 2013 - Ever since the conflict broke out in South Sudan two weeks ago, there have been array of shuttle diplomacy in Juba led by IGAD members and supported by other regional and international agencies and players to assist in restoring peace. At the heart of the conflict is a political rivalry within the ruling SPLM party, which eventually escalated into firefight dangerously aligned along ethnic divide that quickly engulfed the entire nation, with death toll mounting, displacement of thousands and damage of properties.
The consultative efforts of the mediators are yet to materialize into concrete framework in achieving real peace and the expedient the process, the better, so as lives are immediately saved, properties protected and further escalation of the conflict prevented, with permanent political settlement achieved. This process must at best entail immediate cessation of hostilities, protection of livelihood, access to humanitarian assistance, full commitments of the parties involved, permanent political settlement, administering of justice and accountability among others.
The deterioration of security situation as a result of this conflict already underscored the urgency for ceasing fire. However, to stop the fight can otherwise prove difficult than simply stated in paper. This is going to require an enforcement mechanism in place to ensure implementation of any agreed upon ceasefire. The additional deployment of international peace keepers, which is already on the table to supplement the implementation of such a ceasefire is a plus, particularly in ensuring access to humanitarian assistance. Nevertheless, as we have already known, the presence of peace keepers perse will not necessarily prevent the aggression of some of these ruthless fighters such as in the case of Akobo (Jongolei State), where innocent civilians, included peace keepers themselves were dragged out of the UN compound and then bludgeoned to death.
Another challenge that can further complicate any effort to ceasefire is the variety of nature of the fighting groups. Thus far, the fighting groups paint a picture of individuals with diversified interests. For example, the group in Juba who triggered the fight on December 15, seems to be directly or indirectly under the influence of Riek Machar and his ambition to forcefully wrestle power. The reprisal that, therefore, followed in Juba against the members of ethnic Nuers, were to have been carried out exclusively by alleged personal militias of President Salva Kiir, who were not even answerable to South Sudanese military chain of command. The subsequent allegations and rumors of Nuers’ massacres in Juba further sparked spontaneous reactions of the Nuers throughout. Case in point is with Gen. Peter Gadet who was in charged of SPLA division 8 in Jongolie state and on December 18, rebelled against the government and embarked on revenge spree. Up to now, there is no definitive evidence as to whether the infamous defector Gen. Peter Gadet is acting on behest of power hungry Riek Machar or he was simply acting on his own accord as he has done numerous times. Also in a case of Unity State, where another Nuer renegade general, James Koang took over control of Bentiu and declared himself as the governor of the oil rich state, we are yet presented with another different characteristic of this war. The case of fighting in Bentiu suggests more of a rivalry among the Nuers to exert dominance over the oil rich state. This is similarly the case with the fighting in Malakal (Upper Nile State), which mimics the participation of the so called White Army, a loosely armed and civilian group, driven rather by adrenaline and no political agenda.
The pertinent question then: how many rebel forces does Riek Machar has command and control over? Thus far, Riek Machar has been missing in action, even though from time to time he issues media reports, claiming to be in charge of all these various fighting forces. The fact that Riek Machar declared his peace delegation to be led by a government prisoner, Pagan Amum, betrays as to how much military power, political influence and leverage Riek Machar has in order for the government to reckon with him. Machar calls for the conditional release of the political prisoners not only demonstrates his naivete, but also portrays his weak stand against the government he vows to overthrow militarily.
First of all, among these detained prisoners are unlikely allies of Riek Machar. For example, prisoner Pagan Amum who Machar named as his head of peace delegation along with Rebecca Nyandeng are individuals with high ambitions, vying for the same seat that Machar is aspiring for, the chairmanship of SPLM and ultimately the presidency of South Sudan. The group were soundly defeated in SPLM National Liberation Council convention on December 14 through 15, which left them to resort into military take over of the leadership.
Beside, through the USA Envoy, who just visited the detained group in Juba, they denounced violence as a means for political transformation as oppose to Machar who still clings into a military solution, which he is quickly losing. In essence, Riek Machar already shown a divergence departure with those detained prisoners allied to him.
Therefore, this leaves the government with a lot of options to deal with the situation in its favor. For one, the government can wait it out and not rush to any negotiation so as to crash the rebellion militarily. The government has already an upper hand with the success of recapturing of Bor and repulsion of the rebels in Malakal. For the government, one theater of operation remains, the town of Bentiu. Alternatively, the government can also uses its magic, which has been successfully thus far, the amnesty, to lure the rebellious commanders back into fold and isolate politicians like Riek Machar and the group in the cold.
So, it is going to be very challenging for the mediators to figure out who really to negotiate with and how cohesive the group the chose is. The current assumption is that Riek Machar who is in hiding and very much on a ran is the defacto leader of the rebellious group. How much of a power and influence he actually wields is yet to be found. In the end of all this, there is going to be a need for justice and accountability, not only to ensure closer to the victims but to also deter punitive actions by those in power.
Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at email@example.com