Dispatch

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Kenya Wades Into the South Sudan Morass

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has a plan to kickstart the stalled peace process. Can he broker a deal before famine strikes the world’s newest nation?

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 7:  Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta turns to speak to a member of his delegation during the Somali conference, on May 7, 2013 in London, England. The international conference aims to help rebuild the east African country after more more than two decades of conflict.  (Photo by Andrew Winning - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 7: Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta turns to speak to a member of his delegation during the Somali conference, on May 7, 2013 in London, England. The international conference aims to help rebuild the east African country after more more than two decades of conflict. (Photo by Andrew Winning - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 7: Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta turns to speak to a member of his delegation during the Somali conference, on May 7, 2013 in London, England. The international conference aims to help rebuild the east African country after more more than two decades of conflict. (Photo by Andrew Winning - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Speaking at a national celebration here on Monday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta unveiled new details of his bid to resurrect neighboring South Sudan's moribund peace process, and end the 17-month-old civil war that has forced millions from their homes and pushed the world's newest nation to the brink of famine.

Kenyatta’s plan hinges on uniting two separate negotiating tracks that, so far, have failed to produce a lasting peace agreement, and facilitating the return of a group of 10 prominent exiled South Sudanese politicians who style themselves as a council of elders capable of helping the country's warring factions overcome their differences. Because South Sudanese authorities arrested them in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government shortly after violence broke out in Juba in December 2013, they are known collectively as the "detainees."

The group has been living in Nairobi ever since the United States helped negotiate the release of some of its members in January 2014, and the South Sudanese government dropped charges against the others in April of that year.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Speaking at a national celebration here on Monday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta unveiled new details of his bid to resurrect neighboring South Sudan’s moribund peace process, and end the 17-month-old civil war that has forced millions from their homes and pushed the world’s newest nation to the brink of famine.

Kenyatta’s plan hinges on uniting two separate negotiating tracks that, so far, have failed to produce a lasting peace agreement, and facilitating the return of a group of 10 prominent exiled South Sudanese politicians who style themselves as a council of elders capable of helping the country’s warring factions overcome their differences. Because South Sudanese authorities arrested them in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government shortly after violence broke out in Juba in December 2013, they are known collectively as the “detainees.”

The group has been living in Nairobi ever since the United States helped negotiate the release of some of its members in January 2014, and the South Sudanese government dropped charges against the others in April of that year.

“We are looking towards you to be the instruments of peace and stability in South Sudan,” Kenyatta said of the detainees, all 10 of whom were on hand for the Madaraka Day celebration in Nairobi, marking the 52nd anniversary of Kenyan self-rule. “You can count on Kenya, our region and our continent’s support.”

South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011 after nearly a half-century of internecine conflict. But it descended into its own civil war less than three years later when a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, turned violent. An estimated 2.1 million people have been displaced in the subsequent fighting, and as many as 50,000 have died. According to the most recent projection, 40 percent of South Sudan’s 11 million inhabitants will face emergency levels of food insecurity by the end of July.

Peace talks have dragged on intermittently for more than a year without much progress. Now, Kenyatta hopes to speed them along by uniting the primary strand of negotiations, led by a regional trade bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), headquartered in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, with a second strand led by Tanzania and headquartered in Arusha, that experts say has now run out of funds. In February, the Arusha process yielded an agreement, signed by both of the warring parties as well as a representative of the detainees, to reunify South Sudan’s ruling party. The deal did not require the parties to stop fighting immediately, however, and its provisions have since gone unimplemented.

Kenyatta’s move to put his stamp on the peace process reflects Kenya’s growing ambitions to assume a more prominent role in the region, as well as the vulnerability of the peace processes themselves. Not only is the Arusha process financially unviable; its IGAD-led counterpart was suspended indefinitely in March after the eighth cease-fire agreement it secured broke down and the parties failed to hammer out a power-sharing deal.

“Many in the international community see the IGAD process as open for the taking,” said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, who added that in addition to Kenya, both the African Union and the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations have signaled willingness to assume a more prominent role in the negotiations. The African Union in particular is expected to announce a former head of state as its new envoy to the South Sudan peace process, meaning that its representative would immediately become the most senior at the talks.

Sending the detainees back to Juba amounts to a diplomatic bank shot for Kenyatta: By pushing for implementation of the Arusha accord, which in theory should heal the divisions within the ruling party that gave rise to the current conflict, he hopes to generate momentum toward a concrete power-sharing agreement within the IGAD framework. As Kosti Manibe, a former finance minister and one of the detainees, told Foreign Policy, “The Arusha agreement will pave the way to Addis Ababa.”

“Today, the two processes have come together and the former detainees who have been in Nairobi are ready to go back home to bring peace back to their country by reconciling the warring leaders,” Kenyatta said in a press conference on Friday.

For all the fanfare surrounding Kenyatta’s announcement, however, only five of the 10 detainees have agreed to travel to South Sudan, where their security is being guaranteed by the South African government. The other five — including political heavyweights Pagan Amum, the former secretary general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, former deputy defense minister Majak D’Agoot, and Rebecca Garang, the wife of South Sudan’s founding father John Garang — have elected to stay behind in Nairobi.

In a telephone interview with FP, Amum denied that there was any political reason that he and some of the more powerful detainees declined to travel to Juba. “The delegation is composed of five. That was the decision of the group,” he said, adding that the purpose of the mission is “peace and unity, specifically engaging President Kiir and the SPLM leadership in Juba, with the aim of removing the impediments to implementation of the Arusha agreement.”

Amum confirmed that a plane carrying the delegation of five detainees, led by former Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor, left Nairobi for Juba on Monday afternoon. They were accompanied by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

There are those who doubt that the detainees can do much of anything to bring the parties closer to a peace agreement, even if they present a united front. “They don’t have any clout of any kind, not with the political leaders and not with ordinary South Sudanese,” said Jok Madut Jok, a former senior South Sudanese government official and head of the Juba-based Sudd Institute. “The international community has insisted on inserting them back into the process, but they are the ones who were discredited when they ran the show. It’s completely out of touch with how people feel about them back in South Sudan.”

But by returning to Juba, the detainees may still serve a useful function for Kiir’s government, which has postponed elections and will arguably be operating without a democratic mandate after July 9. “The return of the detainees benefits the government, especially with respect to the international community,” said Copeland. “If Kiir can get some of the detainees to return, he will reduce the pressure on the government in negotiations on transitional arrangements.”

There are other reasons to be skeptical of Kenyatta’s push to make peace in the current hostile climate. Kiir’s government recently mounted a major military offensive in the country’s northeast, for which it came under intense criticism for serious human rights abuses. And despite a momentary scare that it could lose control of critical oil fields, it succeeded in taking back large swaths of territory from the rebels. These gains may “cause Juba to think that a military solution is possible after all, and that there is no need for negotiations,” said Jok, “This would be a mistake, because I don’t think anybody is going to win this war decisively.”

Sudan has proved uniquely resistant to decisive military victories throughout its modern history. As former BBC Sudan correspondent James Copnall observed recently, the government in Khartoum failed to win either of its lengthy wars with southern rebels, and the South Sudanese government has repeatedly been forced to strike deals with its rebellious military officers, offering them amnesties and even promotions within the national army in order to bring them back into the fold. With its swampy interior and poor transportation network, he wrote, “South Sudan is good rebel territory.”

But if betting on a government victory means “fighting against the weight of history,” as Copnall put it, it seems equally premature to bet on a peace agreement anytime soon. In Jok’s words, “peace itself is not the priority” of either of the warring factions represented at the peace talks. Instead, he says, “Political gains [are] more important that peace itself.”

Photo credit: Andrew Winning – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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