South Sudan's Riek Machar returns to Juba, now what?

by Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst, NKC African Economics 0

On April 26, the rebel leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – in Opposition (SPLM-IO), Riek Machar, finally returned to the South Sudanese capital of Juba to take up the post of first vice president – a condition of the peace agreement signed in August last year and a tentative step towards a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU).

Machar had delayed his return for more than a week over matters related to his security detail and the amount and types of weapons he would be able to bring with him – his demands included machine guns and laser-guided and anti-tank missiles. It appears that Machar’s logic was: if you want peace, prepare for war.

A lot of importance has been placed on the rebel leader’s return to the fold. Billboards have been erected showing President Salva Kiir and Machar with slogans like, “Reconciling, Uniting the Nation” and “United for Peace, Prosperity, Reconciliation and Healing” – expectations, thus, are high.

But what are the chances that his return really signals the end of the two-year civil war and the beginning of a sustainable peace? Realists would argue, not high.

The civil war has been bloody and has surely worsened relations between the country’s dominant ethnic groups – the Dinka (Kiir’s ethnic group) and Nuer (Machar’s), but this is just the freshest layer of history deposited on a deep bed of poisoned earth that makes chances of reconciliation and national unity difficult.

Animosity between Kiir and Machar goes back decades to at least the 1990s when Machar was used by Khartoum to try and sabotage John Garang’s SPLM. This kind of history will not be easily patched over, and any peace will be fragile because of it.

More fundamentally, one has to appreciate that politics in South Sudan is driven by the desire to control access to resources and rents.

This is why Kiir’s creation of 28 states from an original 10 is such a sticking point for Machar. Under the new arrangement, the state where the country’s oil fields are located, Unity state, is split into three which could dilute Machar’s control over the oil-producing region.

Control over rents, whether from oil or international aid etc., allows those in power to keep militias on their side. The equation is as simple as it is cynical: rents mean the ability to pay militias to stay loyal. Militias mean continued power and access to rents. Repeat ad nauseam/absurdum.

At present, the number of militias has grown and no one is certain whether Kiir or Machar can bring them under control – especially given the dismal state of the economy and thus limited means to bribe militia leaders into quiescence.

Machar’s return to Juba is positive and improves the chances of establishing a lasting peace after years of bloody war. However, it improves chances from zero to very slight.

What South Sudan desperately needs is leaders untainted by the history of rivalry and revenge that it currently has. Uniting the country will require a leadership able to communicate a vision of a united South Sudan. And after manipulating ethnic rivalries to their own ends and bloodying their hands, neither Machar nor Kiir can credibly give voice to that vision.

*Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst, NKC African Economics