South Sudan’s time loop

I know it’s late and it’s Friday, but I’ve been trying to write an update on South Sudan all week and just keep getting drawn into other things, so I’m doing it now. When last we checked in on the world’s newest country,  in ealy July, the fragile peace that had interrupted its ~two year long civil war last August was in danger of collapsing. Forces loyal to South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were once again clashing with forces loyal to South Sudan’s First Vice President (at the time, anyway), Riek Machar, and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). Initially Kiir and Machar jointly appealed for calm, but as the clashes continued Machar’s people in particular began to talk as though the civil war were back on.

Then Kiir instituted a unilateral ceasefire, and that seems to have tamped down the worst of the fighting, but it hasn’t brought the country back from the brink of renewed civil war. On July 13, Machar responded to Kiir’s ceasefire by leaving the capital, Juba, and taking his forces with him. And while you could see that as a move to try to deescalate the situation in Juba, it seems that Kiir is more inclined to see it as a repeat of the beginning of the civil war, back in 2013, since that conflict began with, well, Machar and his fighters withdrawing from Juba to go plan and carry out a rebellion. Worst. Time. Loop. Ever. Machar’s people insist that this time around, he’s definitely not planning any kind of armed insurrection, but I suppose it’s not unreasonable to harbor some doubts.

Last Thursday Kiir decided he’d had enough, and he issued an ultimatum for Machar, who remember is (or was; we’re getting to that) South Sudan’s Vice President (in fact his occupancy of that position is kind of key to the peace deal he and Kiir signed last year. Kiir demanded that Machar return to Juba and reoccupy his office, but Machar responded with a hearty “thanks but no thanks,” suggesting that Kiir wanted to lure him back to Juba to have him killed, or arrested, or something unkind. Kiir gave Machar until Saturday to come back and resume his job; when Machar didn’t show, whatever element of the SPLM-IO was still in Juba convened and named another top SPLM-IO official, Taban Deng Gai, as the country’s new First Vice President. Machar took the news about the way you’d expect:

South Sudan’s former vice president and prominent opposition leader Riek Machar has told Al Jazeera that his replacement by President Salva Kiir is “illegal”.

In an exclusive phone interview on Wednesday, Machar said: “I’m still the first vice president of the republic of South Sudan. The appointment made yesterday by President Salva Kiir is illegal.

“It has no basis because the peace agreement does not give him the powers to appoint a first vice president under the current circumstances.”

And Gai was equally magnanimous about the whole situation, initially pledging to only occupy the office until Machar returned but then later kind of saying pretty much exactly the opposite of that:

Nothing has been heard from him since and Kiir replaced him as vice president last week with Gai, a former ally of Machar’s.

“I am advising him (Machar) to come back to Juba and stay peacefully or he can go anywhere; to Addis Ababa to Nairobi to Kampala or Khartoum to stay there peacefully and wait for elections (in 2018) so that you the people come and elect him to office or you say we don’t trust you,” Gai said.

Telling your predecessor/rival that he’s more than welcome to get the fuck out of your country anytime he’d like to check out probably isn’t the kind of talk that will help calm tensions.

It will come as no surprise that, when Machar calls Deng’s appointment “illegal,” it’s…well, it’s complicated. The terms of the peace deal give the SPLM and the SPLM-IO 48 hours to name replacements for the positions of president and first vice president, respectively, if either office falls vacant. But define “vacant.” Machar wasn’t in Juba and wasn’t performing the duties of his office, so that could be considered a kind of vacancy. On the other hand, Machar isn’t dead, he’s not incapacitated, and he hasn’t resigned, so in the most basic senses of the term he hasn’t really “vacated” anything.

While Kiir and Machar work out their personal animosity, of course, the people really suffering are the ordinary South Sudanese, almost three hundred of whom were killed and thousands of whom have been newly displaced by the recent fighting. If the civil war returns in earnest, that number will skyrocket. Earlier today the UN Security Council extended its peacekeeping mission in South Sudan through August 12 amid reports of new fighting. The UN has talked before about imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan and leveraging sanctions against its leaders, including both Kiir and Machar–it was, in fact, the threat of sanctions that helped convince both men to sign last year’s peace deal (albeit reluctantly, at least in Kiir’s case)–and Ban Ki-moon now seems prepared to go beyond threatening to implement these things and actually implement them.


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