Rebel leader Riek Machar (PhD) has returned to South Sudan this week and has been appointed as First Vice President. Reports have said that Machar was flown on board a United Nations aircraft from Gambella Regional State.
Machar had been due to arrive in the capital Juba on 18 April but did not turn up until Tuesday this week, putting the fragile peace agreement under duress.
The rebel leader reportedly landed at Juba International Airport to flying doves and ecstatic crowds and was immediately led to the presidential palace to be sworn in as First Vice President to President Salva Kiir.
According to reports, the process is part of a peace deal that requires a two-year transitional government of ministers from both sides before the new elections.
Reports added that the return of Machar is being looked at as a new chapter of peace, and his appointment as First Vice President is expected to bring under control the civil war that has killed thousands of people over the past two and a half years.
Machar told reporters in a statement at the airport upon arrival that he was happy to be back, and that they “need to bring our people together so that they can unite, reconcile, heal the wounds, the mental wounds that they have.”
Following Machar’s appointment, the United Nations peacekeeping chief yesterday said it could mark the opening of a new chapter for South Sudan.
“It is vital that parties should take this opportunity to show the genuine determination to move forward with the peace process,” Hervé Ladsous said in a briefing to the UN Security Council.
Machar, who fled Juba in 2013 after a dispute with President Salva Kiir that sparked civil war, said he was glad to be back in the capital and called for unity.
He referred to his long-time arch rival Kiir as his brother, and both stressed their commitment to ending a brutal and destructive conflict that has taken a serious toll on the country’s people and economy.
But with South Sudan’s economy at rock bottom and suspicion still rife among the previously warring parties, tensions are running high and the pressure is on to move forward with the UN-sponsored deal, agreed last August.
With the government almost bankrupt, inflation at more than 200 percent and millions of people are in need of food aid, what happens next will be make or break for South Sudan.
If successful, it is expected that donors will start to ramp up support and rescue the country from economic crisis.
The US announced on Thursday that in anticipation of the swift formation of a unity government, it will be releasing an additional USD 86 million in aid for conflict-afflicted communities. It will deliver a range of supplies from safe drinking water to fishing and agricultural equipment.
But pulling the country’s economy out of distress will also require an adequate rescue plan from the new leadership, one that enables it to pay the South Sudanese army and the militia it has just absorbed, all of whom are expecting some dividends.
A failure to pay, or continued disagreements among the rebels regarding power-sharing allocations, could spark renewed tension between the two parties while some of their armies live side by side in Juba.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, just two years after it gained independence from Sudan. It was triggered by a political power struggle between Machar, who was vice president at the time, and Kiir.
Machar was sacked after being accused of trying to organize a coup, sparking violence which eventually developed into full-blown conflict divided along ethnic lines.
Tens of thousands of people were killed and more than two million were driven from their homes in the two-year civil war.