South Sudan's President Salva Kiir today refrained from endorsing an internationally backed peace deal aimed at ending almost two years of war between his government and rebel forces loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president.
Representatives of the two leaders had been discussing the deal in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa since August 6, working on a resolution that would forestall the threat of increased sanctions from the United States, likely through the United Nations or the European Union.
Machar and Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of South Sudan's ruling party, signed an agreement on Monday, but Seyoum Mesfin, lead mediator of the IGAD group of East African countries that has played a major role in overseeing negotiations, soon told reporters that Kiir had requested an additional 15 days to review the draft before supporting it.
Under the deal's terms, Kiir and Machar would join a three-year transitional government, with the vice presidency reserved for the rebels. The agreement outlines power-sharing ratios at the national and state level, with Kiir's government receiving majority stakes. He had earlier balked at a proposal that would have ceded Machar's forces greater representation in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity states, which are major sources of oil.
Machar expressed shock to reporters after learning that Kiir had declined to sign.
"I couldn't find any explanation for this because he had it all," he remarked. "There is no reason why he requested for more time. We had a good agreement."
Kiir and Machar have been locked in a stubborn conflict over control of South Sudan since late 2013, just two years after the country became the world's youngest nation through a voter-backed referendum to separate from Sudan, its neighbor to the north. At least 50,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced by the fighting.
The civil war has inflamed a decades-long divide between the Nuer ethnicity, which Machar belongs to, and Kiir's Dinka ethnicity.
Both sides have signed at least seven ceasefire deals in the past, but each one was quickly followed by fresh clashes. Observers fear that the country's rival combatants are too committed to battling one another to create a platform for sustainable resolution. Even if the signing of the latest deal weren't a matter of controversy, there is little to suggest that the prospect of peace would have persisted much beyond Monday's deadline.
During the recent talks, rebels loyal to Machar reported that government forces were staging attacks on their strongholds in Unity State as recently as August 10, four days into the meetings. That day, a high-ranking general in Machar's Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition army declared that he was defecting from the group and called on Machar not to join a proposed transitional government with Kiir. Another rebel general soon followed suit.
Kiir had refrained from attending the talks, suggesting that the defections undermined the enforceability of peace among various warring factions.
"A peace that cannot be sustained cannot be signed," he told reporters on Sunday, shortly before traveling to Ethiopia after East African leaders pushed him to do so. "If it is signed today and then tomorrow we go back to war, then what have we achieved?"
South Sudan's government has consistently barred opposition figures from taking part in peace talks in the past. Earlier this year, Lam Akol, a Kiir critic and representative of the Shilluk ethnic group, alleged that he was halted from boarding a plane despite an invitation by IGAD because he wasn't on a list of attendees cleared to travel by Kiir.
These talks mark the first time that Kiir and Machar have negotiated beneath an umbrella of international delegates from the US, the UK, Norway, the United Nations, and African countries outside the IGAD bloc.
Jens-Petter Kjemprud, the representative of the so-called Troika states — the US, the UK, and Norway — said at the opening ceremony on August 6 that if the deadline wasn't met, "the international community will look at new ways to solve the conflict."US President Barack Obama, had earlier asserted during a trip to Ethiopia at the end of July that US-backed sanctions or an arms embargo on South Sudanese leaders was on the table. But some observers are skeptical that sanctions will be enough to change the tide.
"The fact that the international community has been absolutely unable to have [past ceasefires] respected, while negotiating on political issues that matter much less to the people at the grassroots level than their immediate security, is a major failure," Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher who helped administer UN sanctions on combatants accused of atrocities in the war between Sudanese government forces and rebel elements in Darfur, told VICE News.
The Darfur sanctions show how such measures can be difficult to enforce. Last month, the Sudan Tribune detailed how Musa Hilal, the leader of the Janjaweed militia accused of genocide against non-Arab Sudanese civilians in Darfur, traveled to Egypt in 2009 despite a UN travel ban on his name. Though he is subject to a UN asset freeze, the Enough Project, a Washington-based think tank, alleges that Hilal funds atrocities by overseeing gold mining in Darfur and then facilitating trade with the Sudanese government.
Watch the VICE documentary Saving South Sudan:
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