S. Sudan warring factions sign deal
South Sudanese warring factions and the government on Thursday signed a peace agreement on cessation of hostilities at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
The latest deal came on the last day of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) High-Level Revitalization Forum on South Sudan that started on Monday.
According to IGAD officials and facilitators of the talks, the new deal is aimed at ending a devastating four-year-old war in the country while it would also pave the way for protection of civilians and access to humanitarian aid.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD), AU Chairman Moussa Faki as well as representatives of civil society witnessed the signing ceremony.
Speaking at the signing of the agreement, African Union Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat hailed the outcome of the talks, saying "this is an encouraging first step. You have given a ray of hope back to your people but it is only a small step. Now practical action is needed."
Meanwhile, Workneh, who is also chairperson of the IGAD Council of Ministers, called the peace deal “the most precious Christmas and New Year gift of all time” mainly for the people of South Sudan and the Horn Africa at large.
He, however, noted that the latest deal is regarded only as the first step for further negotiations and for finding a smoother way for humanitarian aid access.
“We are conveying the message that this (deal) is the beginning of the end of political conflict in South Sudan. This is the beginning of the end of mistrust in South Sudan. This is the beginning of the end of ending hatred and the beginning of the end of all evil takes in South Sudan,” Workineh said.
He also told the signatories that there is no longer space or excuses for violation of human rights, rational humanitarian law and international humanitarian principles for South Sudan.
“This agreement is instrumental to bring peace and stability”, he told participants, adding that all the signatories should oblige and observe the agreement on the cessation of hostilities, which he said is “inclusive and binding” upon them.
South Sudan's leaders fought for decades for independence, but once they got it in 2011, a power struggle ensued between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, leading to an all-out civil war in 2013.
A peace deal was signed in 2015 but collapsed in July 2016 when fresh fighting in the capital Juba forced then first vice president Machar into exile. The opposition split, with Taban Deng taking over as first vice-president, while Machar's faction took up arms against the government.
While the initial fighting pitted Kiir's ethnic Dinka against Machar's Nuer, the renewed violence has brought more complexities with new opposition armed groups forming.
Violence spread to the southern region of Equatoria, forcing over a million South Sudanese to flock to neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in addition to hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltered in Ethiopia.
The latest round of peace talks, which the United Nations described as a "last chance" for peace in the country, was pushed by IGAD as a revitalization of the 2015 deal.
However, observers fear that the shifts in the conflict since 2015 will mean taking into account new grievances.
In addition to Kiir's government and Machar's SPLA-IO, this round of peace talks brought to the table half a dozen armed opposition groups that have sprung up since July 2016.
A permanent ceasefire is the first step in negotiations to include a "revised and realistic" timeline to holding elections.
The initial peace deal calls for elections in August 2018 -- a timetable seen as unfeasible by many observers.
Numerous ceasefires have failed over the past years, with even the 2015 peace deal dogged by fighting.
At a press conference Workneh gave shortly after Thursday’s signing ceremony, The Reporter asked the minister what was new with the latest agreement that would guarantee that it would hold.
The minister responded by saying that apart from the major factors such as the dire need for peace demanded by the South Sudanese people, “the international community is united together more than any other time on South Sudan to bring lasting solution while pushing the leaders of all warring factions and armed groups to bring peace and stability”.