March 14, 2014 (JUBA) – South Sudan has unconditionally accepted deployment of an East African regional force, despite protest and rejection by the rebel group which has been fighting government for almost three months since a split in ruling party (SPLM) and army (SPLA) plunged the young nation into conflict in mid-December.
The confirmation comes after speculation that the SPLM government in Juba had asked leaders from the East African regional block IGAD – the Intergovernmental Authority of Development – to consider deploying a protection force to the country’s oil fields and other important installations.
Nhial Deng Nhial, the former South Sudanese minister for foreign who is a lead negotiator at talks with the rebel SPLM/A in Opposition, told Sudan Tribune on Friday that his government unconditionally accepted deployment of the regional force in accordance with the communique of the IGAD summit attended by heads of state held this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“The summit had agreed to do two important things. One is the emphasis on the commitment of the parties to the resolve the conflict through peaceful dialogue, which the government of the republic of South Sudan had already accepted as a principle and formed negotiating team”, Nhial said.
The other important resolution, according to Nhial, was the seven-member bloc’s decision to deploy a regional force to South Sudan “to firstly provide protection to [the IGAD] ceasefire monitoring and verification mechanism team and secondly to provide protection to key economic zones and installations.”
The former foreign minister said that he did not think anyone could object to the regional initiative.
However, the leader of the SPLM/A in Opposition, Riek Machar, South Sudan’s former vice president told Sudan Tribune on Friday that he condemned the proposed deployments of such forces, warning that it will widen and regionalise the current conflict.
The rebels have already strongly objected to Uganda’s decision to deploy troops to South Sudan to fight alongside the SPLA against Machar’s rebels, a loose coalition of armed civilians mobilised mainly on the basis of ethnic affiliations and defectors from the army.
Despite beginning as an internal political argument between rival factions within the ruling SPLM, which was not divided along tribal lines, the conflict has killed around 10,000 people many of whom were targeted because of their ethnic identity.
Machar described IGAD’s decision as “unfortunate” as it interfered in South Sudan’s “internal conflict” between factions of the ruling party and army.
The SPLM and SPLA until a 2005 peace deal was a rebel movement fighting against the government in Khartoum. In 2011 the country seceded from Sudan but did not address its internal political differences.
“We reject it and condemn it in the strongest terms. It is an attempt to regionalize the internal conflict,” Machar told Sudan Tribune on Friday by phone from one of his bases in oil-producing Upper Nile state.
Nhial, however, insisted that the deployment of IGAD forced “is to create an environment conducive to continue with the dialogue on other issues”. So far the peace process in Addis Ababa has only achieved a weak ceasefire deal that was seriously violated by both sides.
The former foreign minister did not provide details regarding who will fund the force or how many troops would be deployed.
However, sources within the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency claimed three IGAD member countries had shown an interest in contributing to the force but did not give any indication as to their identity.
South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir had made it abundantly clear at the summit that the upcoming talks should be confined to the SPLM government and Machar’s the SPLM/A in Opposition, Nhial said.
A groups of seven senior SPLM officials have joined the talks as a third group after they were detained and accused of collaborating with Machar to overthrow Kiir’s government in a coup on 15 December.
“The president made it abundantly clearly that the position of the government of the republic of South Sudan is to confine the upcoming talks to only the government and those involved in armed conflict”, Nhial said.
This group however, “can participate in the subsequent processes, if they so wish. We will have national dialogue where all the stakeholders would participate. I think this is one of the appropriate forums where these people can participate if they so wish”.
Many analysts have warned that a political power sharing deal between the warring factions will not bring a lasting solution to the political factors that triggered the conflict and the social issues that have caused the issue of ethnic identity to polarise the young nation.
Nhial’s comments also seem to rule of the involvement of South Sudanese civil society in the talks, a move that has been encouraged by mediators but not the government or the rebels.
The seven former detainees all deny being part of a conspiracy to oust Kiir from power, as do the four senior SPLM officials whose high profile trial began in Juba this week.
“As for those who are being tried, the president can’t do anything now. He can only decide what to do after the outcome of the trial, if he wishes”, Nhial said.
A senior diplomat at the ministry foreign affairs said Sudan and Uganda were unlikely to participate in the deployment of troops as part of the protection and deterrent regional force.
Sudan, as the country that South Sudan seceded from after decades of conflict the Sudan Armed Forces would not be welcomed by the majority of South Sudanese. Khartoum also has had bad relations with Kampala for decades.
Uganda has already deployed troops to support the SPLA and has effectively taken sides in the conflict so it would be politically difficult for them now to be part of a regional peacekeeping mission.
“So far, we have Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda as some of the countries which have indicated their readiness to deploy to the country anytime. They are only waiting completion of necessary arrangements which the government is currently putting in place before eventual deployment. What I know is that their deployment would take place immediately within a month of approval”, a senior diplomat at the ministry of foreign affairs, who did not want to be named, told Sudan Tribune on Friday.