Seven South Sudanese opposition groups, including that of rebel leader Riek Machar, said they had agreed to work closely in a bid to oust President Salva Kiir’s government, as the civil war drags on.
Signatories of the agreement included former government ministers Kosti Manibe and Lam Akol, as well as Thomas Cirillo Swaka, the military’s former head of logistics, who resigned in February citing rampant human rights abuses by the military and the dominance of President Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group.
“In working together, our efforts – political, diplomatic and military – can be more effective than when we operate as different units,” said Nathaniel Oyet, a senior official in Machar’s SPLA-IO group.
South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war just two years later after Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his vice president, Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
The move triggered a conflict fought largely along ethnic lines, pitched parts of South Sudan into famine, and forced a quarter of the population – three million people – to flee their homes. The United Nations said the violence amounts to ethnic cleansing and risks escalating into genocide.
Machar’s SPLM-IO group fought soldiers loyal to Kiir for more than three years but several of his generals broke off to form their own movements or join Kiir’s government.
Other anti-government groups have also emerged since the conflict started. Some have battled each other.
In their statement at the weekend the opposition leaders said they would hold a conference “with a view to seeking a united front on common strategic and operational issues”.
“We feel if we have one objective to remove the government … then we need to co-ordinate our effort and we need to speak one language,” said Oyay Deng Ajak, a member of a group of exiled former officials of the ruling SPLM party who have stayed neutral in the conflict.
Ajak said some contentious issues remained, including appointment of a chairman.
The opposition’s move toward unity comes as cracks appeared in Kiir’s ruling coalition. Last week, Kiir fired army chief Paul Malong, raising fears of armed confrontation.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said government would not negotiate with any new opposition members.
“The government is not recognising this kind of group,” he told Reuters. “We have no timetable for them.”