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The Swings and Roundabouts of South Sudan's Peace Talks


South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar (R) and President Salva Kiir (L) exchange a signed recommitment to peace in Addis Ababa on May 9, 2014. The document is one of several that have been signed but failed to end the fighting.

South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar (R) and President Salva Kiir (L) exchange a signed recommitment to peace in Addis Ababa on May 9, 2014. The document is one of several that have been signed but failed to end the fighting.

From bilateral to multilateral and now back to bilateral – that’s how the peace talks for South Sudan seem to be shaping up in Addis Ababa.

When the talks began in January this year, only representatives of Salva Kiir's government, Riek Machar’s rebels and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) were at the negotiating table. A few months later, IGAD and the warring sides agreed that the talks should include members of civil society groups, faith-based organizations, and opposition political parties and individuals.

But more recently, the government and opposition have said they want the talks to be between them only.

The leader of one of the South Sudanese opposition parties taking part in the talks says he thinks so, too.

Joseph Ukel Abango, the head of the United Sudan African Party (USAP) told reporters on Tuesday that everyone, including IGAD, should take a back seat at the talks while the government and Machar’s opposition group sort out their differences and reach a deal to bring nearly nine months of conflict to an end.

Other groups – including Abango's own party – should only contribute ideas, he said.

"The principal parties are the government delegation and the SPLM/ SPLA in Opposition. USAP believes that there is no prospect for peace unless IGAD mediators become impartial and do not dictate the views of the principal parties," Abango said.

"Political parties, former detainees, civil society and church-based organizations should adhere to an advisory role,” he said.

Stakeholders put own interests first

But he has not always thought that way.

Early on in the peace process, USAP backed the idea of the talks involving numerous stakeholders, he told reporters.

But, Abango said, several parties at what are currently multi-party talks are putting their own interests first, instead of focussing on ending the crisis.

“Stop the war, let us see what the solutions are that we should make. One of them is the formation of a government of national unity," Abango said.

Only once the war has ended and the transitional government been set up should the many stakeholders who are currently at the negotiating table start thinking about what they want to get out of the peace process.

Last week, IGAD adjourned the talks for two weeks to allow for consultations after both sides agreed to a blueprint for finally moving ahead with a ceasefire signed in January. Machar's side has denied signing the blueprint, referred to as a matrix.

The peace talks have also been marred by one or the other main parties to the conflict not showing up, for any number of reasons. Most recently, the government boycotted the talks, accusing IGAD of favoring Machar's side.

Last month, leading South Sudanese think tank, the SUDD institute, also said that confining the peace talks to the government and rebels would be the fastest way to end the crisis, which has already claimed thousands of lives, forced 1.7 million people from their homes, and pushed the country to the edge of famine.

IGAD officials were unavailable for comment.

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