South Sudan : Peace Talks without Peace And without Talks

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The other pre-conditions of the opposition – the complete release of the four still detained and the withdrawal of the Ugandan troops – had not been met . As a result , after six days of “peace talks” , nobody has started talking . And if they do , what could they be talking about . The peace ? On January 23rd the government and those it termed “the rebels” had signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement . But the hostilities had not stopped . They simply had slowed down due to shortages of fuel and ammunition . But this did not apply to the Ugandan forces , which were still largely supplied with both . 

The second round of the South Sudan Peace Talks which were opened formally in Addis Ababa on February 10th are somewhat surprising . It started with the head of the opposition delegation Taban Deng Gaï declaring that he would not sit with the government’s side till the political detainees had been freed . This was already complicated . Since the alleged “coup” by former Vice-President Riak Machar on December 15th , eleven politicians (most of the former cabinet sacked on July 23rd last year) had been jailed . Seven had been conditionally released on January 29th , into the care of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and four had been kept under detention , to be tried for High Treason together with three others (Taban Deng Gaï and Riak Machar themselves , plus rebel leader Alfred Lado Gore) who are still at large . On February 10th , in the nick of time , the seven “remotely detained ex-detainees” had been allowed to travel from Nairobi to Addis Ababa , making it difficult for the opposition to remain uncooperative .

But the other pre-conditions of the opposition – the complete release of the four still detained and the withdrawal of the Ugandan troops – had not been met . As a result , after six days of “peace talks” , nobody has started talking . And if they do , what could they be talking about . The peace ? On January 23rd the government and those it termed “the rebels” had signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement . But the hostilities had not stopped . They simply had slowed down due to shortages of fuel and ammunition . But this did not apply to the Ugandan forces , which were still largely supplied with both . As a result , the war rapidly became a kind of colonial war , with the UPDF fighting all the battles and suffering most of the losses . These have been important – about 2,000 men – and were denied by President Museveni who repatriated ten body bags and burnt over 1,800 corpses along the Juba-Bor road . The whole Uganda-South Sudan relationship is now fraught with paradoxes and lies , Museveni denying his losses but accepting to be paid for his expenses (as recognized by Juba Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk) , Kampala having “secured” all the forex reserves of the South Sudan Central Bank by transporting them to Kampala as early as December 23rd and UPDF Spokesman Paddy Ankuna pretending to respect the CoH Agreement while his helicopters were bombing rebel troops near Malakal on February 13th .

As a result , without any respect for the January 23rd CoH Agreement and with several of the political detainees still detained under “High Treason” charges , no agenda has been able to emerge . The “peace talks” operate in a kind of Alice in Wonderland background world where Juba Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin , who has spent the last few days in Great Britain , kept insisting (a) that the whole trouble was the result of an attempted coup (which nobody believes , including himself) (b) that the Ugandan troops were in South Sudan purely to chase the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and would leave as soon as they were defeated . The London School of Economics audience reception was icy . But here in Addis it might have turned worse as small-scale massacres are still continuing and the delegates know it well since several of them have lost relatives and keep being the butt of violent actions . Yesterday, as I was sitting with former Telecom Minister Madut Biar Yal , he answered a phone call from Juba and then told me, almost casually : “Well , the government has just destroyed my house . But it was empty anyway , most of the furniture had already been stolen.” Like beauty, peace is perhaps mostly a question of interpretation . But so far seeing the protagonists of the South Sudan conflict as being ready for “peace” is a bit farfetched .

In fact , while the IGAD “mediation” (with Uganda as one of its members !) is attempting to stage this “negotiations” play , everybody on the ground is busy recruiting for the next stage of the war . De facto Army CoS Paul Malong is in his Northenr Bahr-el-Ghazal area , gathering militiamen (the real CoS General James Oth Mai having withdrawn form public attention) , Telar Ring Deng , the Government strongman , does the same thing in plain view , the rebel White Army is marching on Malakal under the command of Char Chuhuge and even in hitherto peaceful Equatoria Alfred Lado Gore has recruited a rebel militia while Governors Martin Kenyi and Louis Lobong are doing the same for the government . Oh , and by the way , the whole theatre is moving today to suburban Debre Zeit , where we should start talking about peace on Monday February 17th .

 

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