It is now up to the regional heads of state to move the South Sudan peace process forward by enabling a face-to-face meeting between President Salva Kiir and his nemesis, Dr Riek Machar.
The decision by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) Council of Ministers in Addis Ababa on Friday says the two leaders must agree between themselves.
“Even if you bring Angel Gabriel to mediate, it will not make a difference until the two leaders meet face to face and agree on the way forward. This is because there is much trust deficit between the two that is difficult to bridge,” said an official in Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was among the Igad Council of Ministers who recently visited both President Kiir and Dr Machar.
However, the face-to-face meeting — whose date has to be decided by the Igad heads of state meeting before the AU meeting in July — remains a tall order since President Kiir had made it clear that he can no longer work with Dr Machar, who leads the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO).
In turn, Dr Machar — who has been under house arrest in South Africa since November 2016 — says he has lost all trust in President Kiir.
Ababu Namwamba, who represented Kenya at the talks, says when the Igad ministers delivered a message from President Kiir that Dr Machar is free to return home and choose his own protection force, the rebel leader termed it as “a joke”.
Cessation of Hostilities agreement
According to Mabior Garang de Mabior, the SPLM-IO director of information and public relations, the rebel group has welcomed the decision with caution in light of Juba’s intransigence and continued violation of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement.
“The SPLM-IO, despite being hopeful of the prospects of a negotiated settlement, would like to express our concern regarding any imposition of an agreement on the parties. It is our contention that there are no shortcuts to peace, as demonstrated by the collapse of the Agreement in July, 2016,” said Mr Mabior.
In March, the Igad Council of Ministers had resolved that Dr Machar be released from house arrest and relocated to another country that does not share borders with South Sudan on condition that he renounces violence and does not undermine the peace talks that were set to resume in Addis Ababa on April 26.
But SPLM-IO had insisted that he must be freed without conditions as per the Cessation of Hostilities agreement on prisoners of war signed last December.
Meanwhile, on Thursday the UN Security Council gave South Sudan’s warring sides a month to reach a peace deal or face possible sanctions.
The resolution requires UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report by June 30 on whether a ceasefire agreed in December — the latest in a string of truce deals — was holding, and whether the sides have “come to a viable political agreement.”
If not, the council “shall consider,” within five days of the report, slapping sanctions on South Sudan’s defence minister and five other officials and possibly imposing an arms embargo.
Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea argued that peace efforts must be given more time, but Ivory Coast — the third African country on the council — backed the resolution.
Ethiopia’s Ambassador Tekeda Alemu warned that sanctions could lead to the collapse of the regional peace effort by Igad.
“We in the region are also extremely frustrated,” Mr Tekeda said, but he added that the sanctions resolution “will be detrimental to the process.”