JUBA - The warring sides in South Sudan’s conflict have publicly admitted that they are responsible for more than 10 months of deadly violence in the country, and pledged to take steps to restore peace.
Three factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) -- the ruling party that fractured when the country plunged into conflict last year -- acknowledged in a statement released Monday that they hold "a collective responsibility for the crisis in South Sudan that has taken a great toll on the lives and property of our people."
The statement was released at the end of a week of meetings in Arusha between a group loyal to President Salva Kiir; the SPLM in Opposition, led by former vice president Riek Machar; and the Group of 11, made up of former members of the ruling party who were detained when fighting broke out in Juba on Dec. 15 last year.
In the statement which Akol Paul Kordit, the spokesman for the faction loyal to Mr. Kiir, read out to reporters at Juba airport, the three groups called the conflict in South Sudan a civil war and acknowledged that ethnic divisions in the country have been made worse by the rift within the SPLM.
"The parties underscore the fact that a divided SPLM will automatically fragment the country along ethnic and regional fault lines," the statement says.
"The crisis must be urgently brought to an end by the SPLM collective leadership through genuine and honest dialogue that puts the interest of the people and the nation above all.”
Slap at main protagonists
In what could be seen as a slap on the wrists of the main protagonists in the conflict -- Mr. Kiir and Machar -- delegates at the Arusha talks said the SPLM will "recommit to internal democracy, especially on matters of decision-making, elections, succession and peaceful transfer of power."
About a week before violence broke out in Juba late last year, Machar faulted Mr. Kiir for having "dictatorial tendencies" and not sharing decision-making in the SPLM, an accusation he has repeated since then.
Mr. Kiir, meanwhile, said in his speech last month to the United Nations General Assembly that Machar is so thirsty for power that he tried to seize control in Juba through force on Dec. 15 last year, rather than waiting for elections in 2015. Mr Kiir has maintained that the violence in Juba that triggered the months-long conflict in South Sudan was an abortive coup, masterminded by Machar.
At the talks in Arusha, the SPLM factions pledged to "initiate measures to stop the war, lead the government and the people of South Sudan towards peace, stability and prosperity."
That process has been ongoing since January, when the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) began mediating peace talks for South Sudan in Ethiopia. The IGAD-led process did little, however, to end the fighting.
The statement released by the three SPLM factions stipulates that the talks in Arusha are an internal SPLM dialogue, and are separate from the IGAD-led talks. The two processes are, however, "mutually reinforcing" and necessary to restore peace in South Sudan, the statement says.
Justine Fleischner, a Sudan and South Sudan Policy consultant with the Enough Project, said it is important that the internal SPLM dialogue should not be allowed to undermine the IGAD-led talks, which include stakeholders from outside South Sudan's ruling party.
"What would be ideal is if they can continue the conversation in Arusha on the political party issues... but what we would also like to see is the IGAD process begin again, and benefit from the progress that was made in Arusha," Fleischner said.
A future for the SPLM?
United States Institute of Peace Special Advisor Jon Temin said that while it was a step in the right direction for the fractured ruling party to try to patch up its differences, the question that needs to be answered is whether the party is still relevant and "whether it's a good idea to try to put the SPLM back together or move beyond the SPLM.
"The question is whether they are as good at governing as they are at being a liberation movement. That transition from liberation movement to governance is really challenging, and there aren't that many that have handled it well," Temin said.
The SPLM grew out of the armed movement that fought for decades for independence from Sudan. It is overwhelmingly the dominant party in South Sudan.
At least 10,000 people have died in the conflict that rapidly spread from Juba -- where the first shots were fired in December last year -- to several other states in South Sudan. Around 1.8 million people have been displaced, and the country has been pushed to the edge of famine, according to the United Nations.
Observers say that gross human rights violations, including rape and targeted ethnic killings, have been committed by both sides in the conflict. n African Union Commission of Inquiry, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has said that although the conflict was an internal SPLM rift when it started, it quickly took on clear ethnic overtones.