South Sudan's President Salva Kiir has appointed rebel leader Riek Machar to be first vice president in a coalition government, in what could be an important step toward ending the country's civil war.
The move came after the East African bloc IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authorty on Development, urged Kiir and Machar to form a transitional government of national unity within two weeks.
Kiir issued a decree Thursday night appointing Machar to the newly created first vice president position. Later, in a second decree, he relieved Vice President Wani Igga of his duties but reappointed him as a vice president.
Kiir's spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said Machar should return to the capital, Juba, immediately "so that it can allow the other steps of the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity."
Machar told VOA that his appointment was a good step toward implementing the peace deal signed in August. He said he and Kiir would move quickly to finish forming the transitional government.
Juba resident Michael Duku said the president’s decision was long overdue.
“I think it is a way to implement the peace process. As a citizen of this country, what we want is peace," he said. "If this decree is implemented and Riek returns to Juba and takes office, I think this is the beginning of the peace process."
Juba resident Akeen Santo Deng also welcomed the president’s decision, but added that Kiir and Machar need to implement the agreement to the letter.
“We are looking for peace in South Sudan," Deng said. "[The] president has done a good step in the implementation of the peace agreement ... but more needs to be done, like appointing ministers.”
Kiir's decree returns Machar to the No. 2 slot in South Sudan's government, more than 2½ years after Kiir fired Machar and the entire cabinet in July 2013.
The two warring sides are four months behind schedule in forming the transitional government. Each side has accused each other of being reluctant to move forward.
The U.S., Britain and Norway — the countries known as the Troika, which backed the 2005 accord that led to South Sudan's independence from Sudan — have said they want to see both sides commit to implementing the peace agreement, including forming the new government, before they start funding projects to rebuild South Sudan's shattered economy.
Presidential spokesman Ateny said the Kiir administration would work with Machar’s advance team to set up security arrangements for the new first vice president.
Some South Sudan opposition politicians have cautiously welcomed Kiir's decision to appoint Machar as first vice president.
Lam Akol, chairman of the Democratic Change Party, called it a step in the right direction, "but what is important is for [Machar] to come, and the only reason he is not coming is that his bodyguards have not yet being transported to come to Juba. So I hope people will speed up this process so that the full cabinet of the government of national unity is formed.”
More pressing matters
However, Martin Aligo, secretary general for the National Alliance, an umbrella group of 18 opposition parties, said Machar's appointment should not have been the first priority.
“First of all, they have not met the peace requirement," he said. "What wanted is peace. The troops have never moved. So we don’t see where the agreement is going. They are making up a government with no constitution, no anything.”
South Sudan is the world's youngest country, winning independence from Sudan in 2011. Fighting between government forces and Machar's rebels has been especially brutal on civilians.
Both sides are accused of having perpetrated ethnic massacres, recruited and killed children, carried out widespread rape and torture, and forced displacement of populations to "cleanse" areas of their opponents.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million from their homes while pushing parts of the population into famine.