By FRED OLUOCH
While media outlets in the region went to town with uplifting stories of how the main protagonists in the South Sudan civil war were eager to sign a peace agreement on Wednesday in Khartoum, behind-the-scenes events were not that simple.
It all started two weeks ago when the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali gave President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Dr Riek Machar a one week “ultimatum” to appear in Addis Ababa for a face-to-face meeting.
When the two leaders arrived in Khartoum on June 25, they realised that not only had the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) prepared a ready-to-sign document, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had injected fresh angles clearly meant to buttress his country’s flailing economy and reassert Khartoum’s’ influence over South Sudan.
These clauses included the immediate resumption of oil production that had been significantly affected by the civil war, a provision for Sudan to provide security to oil wells, and for South Sudan to have three capitals — Juba, Wau and Malakal (in the south, west and northeast of the country respectively).
This did not go down well with almost every South Sudanese group vested in the talks.
The first to react was Dr Machar’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), which issued a message through its director of communications Mabior Garang de Mabior that they would only sign the agreement with amendments.
The party made it clear that it rejected the division of the country into three regions; the idea of foreign forces coming into South Sudan and also he resumption of oil production prior to a comprehensive negotiated settlement.
Sources in Khartoum told The press that President Kiir also rejected the three proposals, forcing the mediators to make adjustments.
In the end, the security of the oil fields was left to the South Sudan government, while there was a compromise to allow joint rehabilitation of the oil fields affected by the war.
“All the outstanding issues related to the oil sector particularly on the cost of the oil field rehabilitation, shall be technically assessed and economically valued by the relevant authorities of South Sudan and Sudan respectively,” said the Khartoum agreement.
South Sudan civil society and the political opposition which have been sidelined from the talks, protested, accusing President al-Bashir — who has ruled Sudan for 29 years — of taking advantage of his deep knowledge of South Sudan leadership and its powerplay to push Khartoum’s political and economic agenda.
“It is an insult to believe that President al-Bashir will protect our oil fields. There is no way we can reunite with a country we tried to get off our backs for 50 years to protect our oil fields,” said Peter Ajack, chairman of the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum when the details of the Framework Agreement became public.
John Pen, who represents South Sudanese civil society in the Igad High Level Revitalisation Programme, said that Khartoum was attempting to gain control over South Sudan’s oil sector yet the country has just paid off a $3 billion debt in oil transportation costs as part of the transitional financial arrangements.
Pen also accused President al-Bashir of trying to reintroduce the three original regions of Equatoria, Upper Nile and Bahr-el-Ghazal that were created by Khartoum under Jaafar Numeiri.
But the boldest opposition to Khartoum’s machinations was from Dr Luka Biong Deng, a South Sudanese global fellow at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo who has called for mass protests against the Khartoum Declaration Agreement, saying it is bound to fail.
“All the signatories of this agreement have not only accepted their inability to govern but have also surrendered the sovereignty of South Sudan to one of the most fragile, repressive, corrupt and failing governments in the world, the government of the National Congress Party,” said Dr Deng (in reference to al-Bashir’s regime).
President Kiir and Dr Machar were also under pressure from the main sponsors of the peace talks, the Troika – then US, Norway and UK — that there will be punitive financial sanctions on top political leadership should the talks fail.
President Kiir who had a week earlier refused to work with Dr Machar in a transitional government, later rescinded his decision after realising that he was likely to be singled out by the international community as the main obstacle to peace.
He has also accepted the Igad decision to free Dr Machar from a two-year house arrest in South Africa.
Dr Machar on the other hand has gone easy on the two army arrangement and accepted the ultimate reunification of the forces, while also playing down his principal demand for a federal system.
“Despite the known vested interests of Khartoum, President al-Bashir has made progress compared with Igad that was just going round in circles,” said Gervasio Okot, a South Sudan political analyst based in Kenya.
Rebecca Nyandeng also said that she was happy with the role of President al-Bashir because he is the “elder brother” and most qualified to mediate the South Sudanese peace process.
—Additional Reporting by Joseph Oduha.