The second phase of talks between the government of South Sudan and rebels in that country began today in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Ethiopia had hosted the first phase of talks, sponsored by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which led to a ceasefire agreement last month. There have been numerous reports that the ceasefire has been violated since that time and rebels threatened to boycott the second phase of the talks.
Despite the rebels subsequently agreeing to participate, it is very debatable what the talks could hope to achieve under the current circumstances. Since the ceasefire agreement a number of significant events have occurred. Firstly, the South Sudanese government released some, but not all, of those detained following a reported coup attempt in December that touched off the current crisis. This remains a major demand of the opposition and their delegation. It is a demand supported by some members of IGAD, notably Kenya, where the detainees who were released were promptly deported. Some members of the international community have also supported this demand, including the United States.
Secondly, Uganda has officially confirmed its intervention on behalf of the South Sudanese government. Uganda, an important IGAD member, has caused division within the bloc. Ethiopia, the host of the talks, demanded yesterday that Uganda and any other foreign power withdraw from the country. The US has also called for a withdrawal of foreign forces. It appears that these demands do not reference international peacekeepers deployed to the country as part of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). South Sudan will likely be reluctant to agree to the departure of Ugandan forces without concessions though. Their intervention can be seen as having stabilized the situation and prevented rebels from overrunning government forces.
Lastly, at the beginning of this month, Riek Machar, the defacto leader of the rebellion, officially announced that he had formed a resistance movement. Machar has said that the confusingly titled Sudan People’s Liberation Movement / Sudan People’s Liberation Army will seek to unify various militias into a common front. South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has accused Machar of being behind the coup attempt, which Machar has consistently denied. Machar, however, has embraced his position as head of the opposition. Late yesterday, President Kiir announced that Machar, as well as some of his political allies, had been formally removed from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement political party. Also removed was Taban Deng, who signed the ceasefire agreement in Ethiopia last month on behalf of the rebels. Both Machar and Deng are currently wanted by the government on charges of treason relating to the coup attempt.
The goal of the second phase of the peace talks is to come to an agreement on a political solution to the crisis. Given all of these factors, it seems unlikely that a clear mutually agreeable political solution will make itself obvious to the negotiators. While many of the opposition demands are supported by the international community, the situation in South Sudan has largely stabilized in favor of the government, though the situation remains fragile. The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous said today that South Sudan faced a “very long, complex process.” Almost nine-hundred thousand people have been displaced in the crisis. A lack of access has made determining the number of fatalities difficult. The UN estimates that more than three million people in the country are threatened by food insecurity.