By Steve Paterno
February 15, 2014 - The second round of South Sudan’s peace talks in Addis Ababa is slowly picking pace. The first round of the talks, which dragged on for almost a month long, concluded with signing of cessation of hostilities and commitment for the release of political prisoners who are under government detention for an alleged coup d’état. The aim of these agreements were to immediately halt senseless killings, create access for humanitarian assistance, expedite the return of displaced persons, pave way for permanent political settlement among other significant objectives. Nonetheless, thus far, the ceasefire is barely holding as both parties in the conflict are trading accusations of violations. Just like the agreement to cease fire breaking down, the commitment to release political detainees equally suffers lack of implementation. Some of the individual prisoners are released on conditions that they can potentially be tried, while several others are officially charged with treason, further complicating their status.
There are surmountable efforts by the mediators to involve other stakeholders in the negotiations so as to broaden the voices on the table beyond the armed groups. Filling that role include religious leaders, civil societies, women groups, youth, Diasporas, the so called political detainees, and many others.
The political detainees represent the most interesting category among all. They presented themselves as an independent entity, despite the fact that rebels claimed them as members and pleaded for their release as a prerequisite to kick-start negotiation. Also interesting is that the name the group assigned for themselves, "SPLM Detainees," leaves much more to be desired.
Anyway, what actually began as power struggle orchestrated by this splinter group within a political party setting, not only ended up inflaming the entire nation but brought in fragmentation or rather sections of societies to demand their space in national negotiations. This for one demonstrates that the country was sitting on its ills. It actually complicates rather than eases negotiation process, given sectionalism among the participants on the table. Such will require these talks to be conducted in layers or in multi-track negotiations, where some of which must be parallel to one another.
The government as a legitimate authority of course maintains an upper hand in the process. To achieve its objectives, the ruling party has already coerced the formal opposition parties in the country to stand with the government. The government may also find opportunities to sponsor some civil societies and other groups who are involved in sideline negotiations to advocate the government positions. The government has also expanded its leverage on ground with ongoing military victories against the insurgents. However, the government seems to be having problems withstanding international pressure. Such clout will be brought to bear on government in a case of intransigence.
As for the rebels, they seem to have their work cut out for them. The biggest blow to the rebels came when the so called political detainees, whom the rebels have been banking on all along to be their members and demanded for their release as a pre-condition for negotiation, only to distance themselves from the rebels when the rebels wanted them the most. At least, the rebels’ expectation was that the colourful composition of those political detainees would have provided a facelift to the insurgents which until now remain representative of a single ethnic group. Unfortunately, the rebels have to fall back to its military strength, which to their disadvantage is dwindling as they are on retreat. The political detainees are enjoying the limelight of international community. The fact that the pressure to release them was mainly coming from foreign powers, provided them with some leverage they can use to bolster their case. Nonetheless, in an event the armed groups resorted to settle things by use of force, and then the political detainees will be rendered useless. As for the others, which include the majority of South Sudan citizens, it seems, they will just have to wait for their fates and future of their country to be decided for them.
Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org