South Sudanese delegations meeting in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa have signed an agreement reportedly dealing with a ceasefire and the matter of the detention of individual said to have been behind an attempted coup in December. Details, however, are scarce. South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said only that “This agreement contains something of the issue of the detainees.”
The matter of eleven individuals detained in the aftermath of the reported coup in December had caused talks between the two delegations to drag on for weeks. Riek Machar, fomer vice president and the nominal leader of the anti-government movement, had called for the release of the “Garang Boys,” so call because of their affiliation to national hero John Garang, as a precondition to any discussion of a ceasefire. President Salva Kiir and the South Sudanese government had insisted that a formal investigation be handled to determine whether the men were indeed implicated in a coup and that their final status was a matter for the courts to decide. Salva Kiir has also offered an amnesty for Machar, currently in hiding, should he renounce violence as a means of achieving his goals.
Significant concern remains as to whether anti-government representatives can effectively curtail the current violence, agreement or not. The forces fighting the government in South Sudan are loosely aligned and hyper-localized, with little in the way of a formal chain of command. There has been little let up in the fighting since the talks arranged by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) economic bloc began in Ethiopia. Uganda has also joined in the fighting on the side of the government, adding another factor to any current or future agreements, with some in the anti-government camp calling for their departure before talks can proceed. However, their presence may have in fact been what stabilized the situation on the ground in South Sudan enough to compel rebel negotiators to change their tactics in Addis Ababa. Prior to the Ugandan intervention, it looked like there was the realistic chance of rebel militias simply overrunning government forces in many areas.
In the meantime, fighting continues, where the United Nations says over a half a million people have fled their homes, including around seventy thousand sheltering in and around facilities operation by the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). A general lack of security has limited the ability of the UN and others to monitor the conflict, meaning it has been difficult to estimate a death toll. The UN has said it has reason to believe that atrocities have been committed on both sides. UNMISS has generally struggled to help protect civilians from the violence, having been attacked by rebels and more recently resisted attempts by South Sudanese government forces to enter their compounds. South Sudanese authorities accuse the UN of knowingly or unknowingly sheltering rebels and their weapons, something the UN denies. Today, the UN said it had conducted searches of those sheltering in UNMISS facilities and turned up no weapons in doing so.