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Published On: Thu, Jan 30th, 2020

African big men and the futile search for peace

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By Anthony Akaeze

One of the stand-out features of the Yuletide season is the celebration and joy it throws up across the world, which people in and outside their homes variously display during the period. Those with the wherewithal and time, as the case may be, love to fix or move important events to that time of the year, associate or partake in the excitement of the season to good effect, while some others see the period as an opportunity to express gratitude and offer supplication to God for a better life. For the people of South Sudan, there could haven – had things worked out as planned in November: the signing of a peace deal and formation of a government of national unity by two opposing figures: President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, former vice president, whose differences in 2013, ignited the ethnic war in the country – been an additional, if not greater reason to revel in the joys of the recently marked Christmas. According to Ashley Quarcoo in a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, between 2013 and 2018, “an estimated 400,000 people” lost their lives, while “over 4 million people” were displaced as a result of the war. Yet Kiir and Machar recently saw no need, for the second time this year, to embrace peace when they had the opportunity to do so, something that should have manifested in more ways than one in South Sudan from November 12.
Recalling the animosity that sparked South Sudan’s civil war, Quarcoo wrote that “the conflict began when a political quarrel between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and then vice president Riek Machar led to the eruption of violence between both leaders’ presidential guards, who were each drawn from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. Kiir later called the clash a thwarted coup d’état. As the conflict dragged on, the two camps splintered into various armed rebel groups. The 2018 peace agreement now includes twelve armed and political groups as signatories.”
The 2018 peace talks, which began in 2015, like in earlier attempt, failed to yield the desired result in 2019, as it ended up being postponed to February next year. It was the second time in the year that Machar and Kiir would fail to reach a truce and so, citizens of the country were left wondering in the weeks preceding Christmas and New Year, when exactly the story would change for good. Will it happen in February?
Will the two warring henchmen see the need, this time, to honour the agreement, as February is just around the corner? That is difficult to tell as the issue at hand is about power and the craze for it. Kiir and Machar likely view power more seriously than others in the country, hence their adamant postures that evince nothing but suspicion and the lack of trust of one other. No matter how much they try to clothe the issues at stake, it evidently still boils down to ego and power and who gets what. In their calculation, the blood of the many South Sudanese lost needlessly over the past six years over their dispute matters little. Their personal interests far outweighs human life. This is distressing. It is disturbing that Machar and Kiir and their supporters seem less bothered and desperate as many people across the world in ending the war, as what currently passes for a ceasation of conflict in South Sudan is no more than peace of the graveyard. It was to be a precursor to the real deal, which is yet to materialise. How many more souls do Machar and Kiir wish to add to the death list before they commit to peace?
Worried by the situation in South Sudan, Pope Francis and two other Christian leaders: Archbishop Justin Welby of the Anglican church and Reverend John Chalmers, former moderator of the Church of Scotland reportedly reached out to the South Sudan leaders on Christmas day, to remember to keep their word on forming a government of national unity early next year. It was the latest effort by Pope Francis to try to broker peace in the country that, just eight years ago, gained independence from Sudan, making it the world’s youngest nation. One media report revealed that Pope Francis knelt and begged Kiir and Machar when the duo visited The Vatican City earlier in 2019, on invitation of the religious leaders, not to allow the peace process fail.
The hope exuded by citizens of South Sudan at independence was not unlike that of many other African countries, long preceding their birth. It was one of freedom, prosperity and a better life for the long marginalised people. But all that soon evaporated after Kiir and Machar’s personality fight went public, leading to this snowballing into an ethnic conflagration that has cost the country dearly in human and material terms and with prospect of more havoc, if peace is not achieved soon.
Looking back now, South Sudan’s story is one that, were many repeatedly asked in 2011 to contemplate how it could all end up, not a few would be hard put predicting what later became of it. Given the country’s long struggle for independence and the sacrifice of many of its citizens, who didn’t even live to see the dream come true, war would have been far from the rader of even the most cynical fellow. Whatever the deap-seated animosity among its ethnic groups or leaders, it was difficult to contemplate war as an option to how things would turn out. But that was the fate brought upon it by two of its big men: Kiir and Machar. And yet, they appear today indifferent to opinions that are for the country to return to the path of peace and reconstruction. In effect, the two men responsible for the conflict appear the least desperate to end it.
With February beckoning, it is distressing to think that all it will take to return the rest of South Sudanese to crisis is for one of the two big men, for instance, to refuse to commit to the peace agreement in February or to fail to see reason why he should do so. It is disturbing to say the least. To have peace at the whims and caprices of politicians like Machar and Kiir is painful.
Since the outbreak of war in South Sudan, I have been intrigued by the country, and watching Kiir and Machar ever since, as they stomp about seemingly in search of peace that leads to nowhere, leave me wondering about the ways of man. That two individuals known to have brought such calamity upon their nation appear to drag their feet in enthroning lasting peace is troubling.
How should one begin to classify Kiir and Machar, and which African leader(s) in past and present times can be compared to them? If Idi Amin, the late Ugandan military dictator was listed as one of the “most evil men and women in history” by Miranda Twiss, a writer, for allegedly murdering “over 300,000 people,” one in sixty of the Ugandan population, how would one rate Kiir and Machar who, between them, are responsible for the death of an estimated 400,000 people?

Anthony Akaeze is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author.

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