JUBA, South Sudan – Thousands of South Sudanese in the capital Juba gathered at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum to celebrate the signing of a revitalized peace agreement which aims to bring the country’s rival leaders Dr. Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir together once again.
Rebel leader Riek Machar joined Kiir at Wednesday’s celebrations despite earlier indications that he would not attend because certain conditions of the peace deal were not being met, such as the promise to free all political prisoners.
“Our heart is for peace just like you, many of you were in doubt whether I was going to come or not,” Machar told thousands of jubilant South Sudanese.
“Even if I fled Juba in a bad way, I am here to tell you we are ready to implement this peace,” he added.
The theme was “celebrating the dawn of peace, appreciating friends, cherishing reconciliation and unity,” and it was Machar’s first visit to Juba since July 2016, when fighting flared up around the presidential Palace between his bodyguards and government forces, forcing Kiir’s former deputy to flee to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kiir also expressed his commitment to fully implement the peace agreement.
“Today marks the end of the war in the Republic of South Sudan. This war has been subjected to many analyses and has been given many names but for some of us us who were caught in the middle, we know it was neither a tribal or economic war but a naked struggle for power,” he said.
Kiir apologized before the crowd and vowed not to break the peace agreement again.
“We were very highly respected in the world but we brought same to ourselves by this war which we have no reason for it” he added.
Under the revitalized peace agreement signed last month in Khartoum, Machar will once again become Kiir’s deputy after an eight-month transitional period scheduled to end in April 2019.
As a gesture of his commitment, Kiir ordered the release of two more political detainees, General James Peter Gadet, the former spokesperson of Machar’s SPLA-IO, along with a South African national. Both men were previously jailed by South Sudan’s Supreme Court for agitating violence.
Analysts have expressed concern about the level of mistrust between the two rivals, which is seen as a major obstacle to peace if the two leaders are to work together again.
David Shearer, the United Nations Special Representative and head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan said this remains an area of concern since the two leaders were once friends turned foes.
“So the big challenge here is to build trust and confidence between the parties and between the parties and their people,” he said in a speech.
Regional leaders on the future of peace
Regional leaders including Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, President Yuweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia, Ismail Waise, the IGAD envoy to South Sudan, and other dignitaries attended the celebration.
Bashir said he will monitor the peace agreement and ensure that it is implemented.
“We will not turn our back unless we see that guns fall silent and we will not turn our backs unless the refugees return back home,” he said.
Bashir added Machar and Kiir have to get serious this time around.
But Museveni, who fought alongside Kiir in 2013 and 2015, was quick to point figures to the West calling for regime change.
“The foreigners who want to establish hegemony over Africa, who want to recolonize Africa, are always using the weak elements among us to come back.”
He said the West wants to make South Sudan like Somalia and Libya, but warned Kiir and Machar not to use war as means of solving political arguments.
“It is therefore ideologically incorrect to use war to solve political argument, elections or referendum is the best way but the election must be fair because if it is not, is the cause of problems.”
Museveni called for a balance in state institutions where all South Sudanese are represented.
A recent Sentry report says more than 300,000 people were killed in the conflict. At least 4 million South Sudanese were forced to flee their homes, either to live in refugee camps of neighboring countries or IDP settlements including U.N.-run sites in Juba, Malakal and Wau.
Glimpse of joy
Thousands of jubilant South Sudanese gathered at the John Garang Mausoleum to celebrate the peace agreement, and many said there is some glimmer of hope that peace seems to be returning to the country to whip away the devastating war that South Sudanese women and children have experienced.
Though many smiled at seeing Kiir and Machar shake hands before them, they say they expect little from the two leaders but advise them to move the peace process forward without disappointing them again.
This multitude had come to hear from Kiir and Machar that they are committed to implement the shaky peace deal once again.
Reverend Abraham Nyari of the Pentecostal Church was one of those attending the celebration.
“We as the church people are praying for peace and we have seen the sign for peace, and we are praying for our leaders, especially the president, to bring peace to South Sudan,” Nyari told The Defense Post. “That is why we are here. Today is a joyful day and we pray that God will cement this peace in the hearts of South Sudanese people.”
Beatrice Abe, a member of parliament, said Kiir and Machar must keep the promises they made to end the war once and for all.
“Let them not break what they put together. Remember they fought together in the bush and brought this nation [together], and it should not be them who break it apart,” she told The Defense Post, adding that she still had doubts about how much will be achieved by the expected transitional government.
“As you can see the country is already economically unstable and people go for months without a salary. It will take a while for this country to establish, and it will take a long while to gain,” she said.
“Remember we now have a small government but later we are going to have a bigger government and the resources will all go to maintain the bigger government with little to go for the citizens.”
Dusman Joyce, chairwoman of the Women’s Caucus in the national parliament, told The Defense Post that the leaders must show real commitment and end the war.
“After this celebration today, in few months we need to see that there is free movement of people and humanitarian aid, we need to see the return of the refugees and people are given freedom of speech movement so that people see that this peace is signed in spirit and letter,” she said.