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Can Fragile Peace Hold in South Sudan?


FILE - South Sudanese rebel soldiers raise their weapons at a military camp in the capital Juba, South Sudan, April 7, 2016. First Vice President Riek Machar returned with a large group of his heavily armed followers. Observers say South Sudan's new transitional government exists in a sea of weapons brandished by both sides.

FILE - South Sudanese rebel soldiers raise their weapons at a military camp in the capital Juba, South Sudan, April 7, 2016. First Vice President Riek Machar returned with a large group of his heavily armed followers. Observers say South Sudan's new transitional government exists in a sea of weapons brandished by both sides.

South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, has halted its civil war by putting the leaders of both sides together in a transitional government meant to keep the country functioning ahead of elections in two years.

President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, coexists with First Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, as they did during South Sudan's first two years following its independence. And for now, the peace that ended more than two years of conflict is holding as the United States and others stand careful watch.

One observer of the situation is Foreign Policy magazine writer Siobhan O'Grady. The writer, who has interviewed Machar, says the peace is shaky at best.

"The main concern now is what will happen next," she said. "It's a very fragile moment for both sides, and with Machar back in the capital for the first time since the beginning of the civil war in late 2013, any number of things could happen."

The conflict erupted when forces loyal to Kiir clashed with those on Machar's side, accusing the latter's troops of plotting a coup attempt against the president.

Peace talks began almost immediately in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but the process took until August 2015 to reach the so-called "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan," which set up the transitional government incorporating both sides.

FILE - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, center, laughs with First Vice President Riek Machar, left, and Vice President James Wani Igga, right, while cabinet members stand behind them, after the first meeting of a new transitional government of national unity, in Juba, April 29, 2016. (J. Patinkin/VOA)

FILE - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, center, laughs with First Vice President Riek Machar, left, and Vice President James Wani Igga, right, while cabinet members stand behind them, after the first meeting of a new transitional government of national unity, in Juba, April 29, 2016. (J. Patinkin/VOA)

The new government commenced only in late April, when Machar returned to Juba and his First VP post. He didn't come alone — a large group of his heavily armed followers came as well, ready to protect and defend him.

Sea of weapons

And that has one key U.S. lawmaker worried. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman, California Congressman Ed Royce, said recently that the two sides are confined in the capital, and one miscommunication could spark an explosion.

South Sudan's new transitional government exists in a sea of weapons brandished by both sides, whom observers say are being pressured from the outside to function together and not fire at each other.

Wariness among Machar's supporters is matched on the other side of this new government.

"There are a lot of people that were in what we could call the wartime [civil war] government, that were fighting against Riek Machar, that would be happy never to have him back in Juba," said International Crisis Group analyst Casie Copeland.

Those Kiir supporters blame Machar for leading Nuer forces in atrocities stretching back to 1991, she says, "and some of them see no place for him at all."

There is yet another point of contention. Kiir wants South Sudan's 10 states to be transformed into 28, a move Machar's fellow Nuer tribesmen say would put more power in the hands of Kiir's Dinka.

Dire situation

While the two factions warily share governance, South Sudan's overall situation remains dire. Thousands of people remain in a United Nations refugee camp outside Juba. Poverty is rampant nationwide, compounded by steep inflation. War-damaged oil production facilities work at a fraction of capacity, and what is produced gets sold at depressed current market prices. That has made the nation's hard currency reserves critically low.

This transitional government is supposed to function until new presidential elections are held in 2018; but then, depending on whether Kiir and Machar each seek the presidency, things could once again fly apart.

"I think we're quite likely to see this [government] carry on for two years in some sort of relative peace. [with] less conflict than we saw," said the ICG's Copeland. "But, unless the question of [presidential] succession can be resolved, we can go right back to where we were."

O'Grady says Machar told her that since the United States was so involved in creating an independent South Sudan, it is Washington's responsibility to clean up this mess.

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.

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