South Sudan: Former Rivals Forge Foundation for Peace

The just signed ceasefire agreement in South Sudan’s bloody civil war is an important step forward, but it remains too early to know whether it will last, says Khalid Ahmed, of University of Toronto

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

South Sudan is the world’s youngest independent state, formed in 2011 as it broke off from Sudan. Nearly two years later in 2013, the country descended into civil war which has raged on until today. The government and the opposition both armed, despite international attempts to impose an arms embargo on the country. However, recently they have been negotiating a ceasefire. Talks have been held in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and orchestrated by Ethiopia’s newly elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Things are progressing quickly with the ceasefire, which came into effect on Saturday, followed by an announcement from Sudan that four border passages will open between the two countries. The opposition, however, they are expressing concern that the peace talks are no more than an attempt to silence their grievances, and the government answered those complaints by promoting a bill which will extend the tenure of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan. He spoke in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, last week celebrating the new document of reconciliation between the government and the opposition of South Sudan.

SALVA KIIR: I am coming here to express my gratitude to his excellency, President Omar al-Bashir, for helping us to reach this day where we have signed this agreement. That is a day that our people of South Sudan have been expecting. And I’m happy that it has finally been achieved.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us now to talk about all of this from Toronto is Khalid Ahmed. He teaches political science at the African Studies Department in the University of Toronto. He worked to at the United Nations in Sudan in 2007. Khaled, I thank you so much for joining us today.

KHALID AHMED: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Khalid, it appears that they have signed an document of reconciliation and have agreed to a ceasefire. What does this mean?

KHALID AHMED: They did the same thing back in 2014 in January- in February, where they signed a ceasefire to try to create the right conducive environment for more thorough negotiations, where they can speak and talk about government, and discuss this in institutions, and power sharing, wealth sharing, amongst the different parties in southern Sudan, with a specific notion to Riek Machar, the former vice president who has now turned rebel, interest in power. And he has been outspoken about his desire to run and to compete in the future elections in South Sudan against Salva Kiir, the current president of South Sudan.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, by way of background, give us some indication of what this actual conflict is about, and what are the demands of the opposition, and what are they fighting for here?

KHALID AHMED: I think it’s important to understand that many of the problems of South Sudan that are taking place today are a side effect of the quality of the comprehensive agreement signed between the north and south that gave birth to the to the, to the South Sudan as a country back in 2011. And by that I mean it strengthens the powers of the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement, the leading political party in South Sudan, at the expense of all other members of the opposition.

So it consolidated the political power in the hands of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan since 2011, and it really made political freedom and power sharing very challenging for those opposing Salva Kiir. Riek Machar, the vice president, was unhappy with the way that the politics was going on, and the way the corruption was taking place in South Sudan. So he announced that he will be running for the elections.

That’s when Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, not just-. He let him go with all the cabinet. So that’s when, that’s when the civil war erupted, because Salva Kiir thought that Riek Machar planted a coup, and was interested in taking the current government by force, which Riek Machar, of course, denies. So that’s when all of it all started. Riek Machar went and started his own-. What he called, formed the new political party in Sudan, South Sudan’s Liberation Movement in opposition, and started the war against Salva Kiir.

SHARMINI PERIES: And do you agree with President Salva Kiir that something significant has been achieved here? Are the negotiations giving a chance for both sides to talk at least on an equal footing at this time?

KHALID AHMED: It depends on how you define achieved. I mean, what’s more important is that people on the ground and ordinary people on a daily basis feel safe and secure, and go about doing their own business without fear of intimidation or fear of being killed. And at the moment I don’t see that anything has been achieved. So it’s premature to celebrate any achievement, or even to call anything happening right now as an achievement.

SHARMINI PERIES: You just mentioned that multiple violations of the ceasefire and the reconciliation agreement had been violated, that there were some incidences where at least 18 people have already been killed in the fighting after this agreement was signed on Saturday. Now, both sides seem to be to blame for some of this violations of the ceasefire. What is your opinion? Who has been more, or, or who has been party to breaking the ceasefire, and who do you think is more responsible for it.

KHALID AHMED: I don’t think it’s easy to pinpoint who is responsible for it for various reasons, mainly because those soldiers on the ground are very far, far removed from, from those elite negotiating the peace agreement at the moment. So any skirmishes on the ground, or misunderstanding, let’s put it that way, could lead to an eruption again of the fighting between the two.

I think it’s important to recognize that peace here is defined very narrowly as a negative peace. That means what were really happening and what we’re seeing here is just an attempt to end the fighting and end the killing, as opposed to trying to achieve something significant that would improve the lives of Southern Sudanese collectively, and the future of South Sudan in general, to a much better economic, economic political social status.

So we’re talking about small little attempts here and there that are happening. But we’re neglecting to understand what peace means, and how we should define it, and who should benefit from it the most.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, considering that the talks are held in Khartoum with the Ethiopian mediation and Rwandan support, this points to the fact that sustainable negotiations and sustainable peace agreement would have to be a regional one that many people agreed to. If it is to be now, do you think that is a good route to go? And then do you feel that international support by way of the United Nations is required to ensure that this will be upheld?

KHALID AHMED: That’s a very good question. What realy is happening now, the peace agreement is being led by EGAD group, the frontline states. Namely Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. They are the same regional powers that negotiated the earlier peace agreement that was between the north and the South Sudan. So Southern Sudanese, and Sudanese, for that matter, feel comfortable working with the EGAD group. But what’s more, what’s more important is that these, this EGAD group, EGAD-led mediation, has the blessing and the backing of the U.S., and the EU and the UN itself.

To be more specific, the U.S. special envoy to South Sudan, to the conflict in South Sudan, Mr. Donald Booth, has insisted that EGAD to continue this process and to continue leading the process, and not any other subregional organization or regional continental organization such as the EU, just because of how familiar they are with South Sudan, and the politics of Sudan. And also because they’re neighbors. Any problems, any wars, any, any migration, any forced migration that takes place spills over to these countries. So they are, they are involved one way or another in the conflict, and it’s in their best interests to negotiate a settlement.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, many people are complaining that the involvement of President Omar Bashir in these talks is counterproductive, given that he is responsible for certain war crimes, and that he has prevented South Sudan from becoming independent. But he’s now hosting peace talks and receives praise from President Salva Kiir. What do you make of this?

KHALID AHMED: It’s ironic, actually, how yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends. Let’s put it that way. Salva Kiir was fighting a war against Bashir, and he was demanding, President Bashir, and he was demanding independence, and received independence; achieved independence, rather. It’s not too surprising that Southern Sudanese go back to Khartoum and ask for, for Khartoum to negotiate, because both Riek Machar and Salva Kiir were in the capital as part of the Sudanese government before. So they’re very familiar with the politics. And Sudanese political elite are also very familiar with the differences that exist in the south. So they are equipped somehow, or somewhat, to be mediators.

However, on the other side you will have Bashir as being, being wanted by the International Criminal Court. I think having such, having him mediate such, such a peace agreement, and presumably achieving a peace agreement, will polish his image internationally, which is unfortunate, because he doesn’t deserve to be polished internationally, his image doesn’t deserve. But it is happening as we speak. If it goes on well and they end up signing a peace agreement, the only one benefiting from it really, it’s not just Southern Sudan, but Bashir himself and his, his brutal government.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Khalid Ahmed, I thank you so much for joining us today. There’s so much more to discuss in terms of the disputes and negotiations underway, and I hope you can join us again in the near future. Thank you so much.

KHALID AHMED: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.