Former rebel leader Riek Machar was sworn in as South Sudan’s first vice president on Saturday as part of a unity government with former adversary President Salva Kiir, a tentative step towards peace after years of civil war ravaged the oil-rich yet impoverished nation.
Kiir expressed optimism, despite challenges: former fighters have still not been integrated into a single security force, more than half of South Sudan’s citizens depend on food aid, and corruption is rampant.
Kiir and Machar twice pushed back deadlines to form a government of national unity after a peace accord in 2018. The civil war killed 400 000 people and triggered Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Fighting was characterised by ethnic cleansing and sexual violence.
On Saturday, officials promised those times were over. Machar stood next to his wife Angelina Teny and took the oath of office in front of Kiir. Afterwards, Machar shook Kiir’s hand, smiled and hugged the president.
“This action signifies the end to the war,” Kiir told dignitaries and journalists. “Peace has come and it has come to stay. My brother Dr. Machar and I are now partners in the peace agreement.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into fighting two years later when forces loyal to Kiir and Machar clashed, sparking the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Juba from Machar’s Nuer ethnic group and a spiral of ethnic violence and revenge killings.
“I want to assure the people of South Sudan we will work collectively to end your long suffering,” Machar said at the ceremony.
It was unclear until Thursday, when the two men issued a statement, whether the unity government would be formed. Benchmarks in the peace agreement were not met, with government blaming a shortage of funds for being unable to disarm, retrain and integrate former combatants.
Three other vice presidents below Machar were also sworn in at Saturday’s ceremony. The cabinet was dissolved on Friday but new appointments were not announced.
‘ENORMOUS CHALLENGES’ REMAIN
Forming the unity government is a significant step, Peter Martell, who wrote a history of South Sudan, told Reuters.
“Creating peace is more than just about forming a government. The country has been wrecked by civil war, enormous challenges still remain,” he said.
The army needs to be unified and militia groups who did not sign the peace deal reined in, Martell added.
The return of refugees and economic reforms are also critical to peace, said James Okuk, senior researcher at the Juba-based Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies.
“Every citizen is expecting this should be a serious government,” he said.
South Sudan is almost entirely dependent on oil for revenue, but its wealth was squandered and facilities damaged. Output currently stands at 180 000 barrels per day, down from a peak of 250 000 bpd before the outbreak of conflict in 2013.
Most children do not attend school and around a third of the population can read, according to the UN.
Peace remains fragile, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a report, noting militias are still armed and civilians deliberately starved.
The new government must quickly set out a human rights agenda, said a statement from Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. That includes “reforming the abusive national security service, freeing abducted civilians held by armed groups and establishing a hybrid war crimes court in partnership with the African Union”.