The cases of political detainees remain a sticking point in negotiations, says South Sudan’s foreign minister.
February 20, 2014[Al-Jazeera] — Three weeks after a ceasefire agreement was signed on January 23, there are few signs that newly resumed peace talks are likely to bring an end to a conflict in South Sudan that has already claimed thousands of lives and displaced an estimated 800,000 people.
The government of South Sudan will not release four political opponents from detention in Juba until the conclusion of the judicial process, according to foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin. The government has also resisted calls for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops, and is unwilling to accommodate the return to the administration of its political opponents.
The release of the four detainees, who include the suspended secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, remains a key sticking point in the peace negotiations with opposition forces, which resumed in Addis Ababa on February 11.
In late January, the government released seven of the 11 political detainees held for their alleged involvement in what it claims was an attempted coup in mid-December.
The seven released detainees have agreed to participate in peace negotiations as a neutral third party allied neither to the government nor the SPLM in opposition.
“I didn’t understand their decision,” said Riek Machar in an interview with Sudan Tribune on February 16. “We only differ in the armed resistance. Their decision doesn’t help the cause, but it is their choice.”
Confusingly, the ministry of justice said that despite a lack of evidence to charge the seven men, they have been released on bail. “If there is more evidence going to come up they can still be questioned,” said Benjamin.
The investigation into the remaining four detainees is ongoing, said Benjamin: “Once the investigation is complete and there is an indication that the evidence… qualifies them to be released they will equally be released, and that is the message of the president.”
The four men face charges of treason, along with three others not in detention, including former vice president Riek Machar, the nominal leader of the opposition, and Taban Deng, the lead negotiator for the opposition at the Addis peace talks.
“If they are found guilty, of course there is a law they will be sentenced,” said Benjamin. “If there is not any evidence they will be released.”
Under South Sudanese law, if convicted of treason, the seven men face the death penalty. President Salva Kiir may choose to pardon the men, but only at the conclusion of the judicial process, said Benjamin.
|Follow our in-depth coverage of South Sudan|
Few analysts believe that the government has any basis for the charges against those who remain detained. “They were picked up by the government straight away – they were having tea,” said a former international negotiator in talks between Sudan and South Sudan. “I can tell you one thing about a coup, and that’s that you don’t sit around afterwards having tea.”
The South Sudan government is under considerable international pressure to release those detained. In an agreement on the detainees signed on January 23, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the mediator of the talks, declared that the organisation and its partners are “firmly committed to undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees”. In early February, the US state department also called for their release.
But there is a clear sense that the government is using the detainees as a bargaining tool in the peace talks as a means of avoiding further concessions if and when substantive talks get underway.
“The four detainees that remain in detention is a clear violation of the spirit of the [January 23 ceasefire] agreement,” said the former negotiator. “There is no need to wait for a pardon, the president can grant an amnesty, and the ministry of justice has the power to stop an invesigation. The government is trying to disqualify these people from a political career.”
The peace talks were delayed from their scheduled resumption on February 7 as the opposition threatened to boycott their resumption pending the resolution of the detainees issue and commitments on the withdrawal of Ugandan forces stationed in the country. But, as with the ceasefire talks in January, the SPLM in opposition dropped its preconditions having received assurances from IGAD that their grievances would be addressed during the talks.
Benjamin conceded that the negotiating parties could mandate the release of the detainees “if that decision is taken by the peace process… and if the government has inserted its signature on whatever it is that has been decided”.
But the foreign minister offered little hope that the government is prepared to make concessions on the withdrawal of Ugandan forces, or even to acknowledge the extent of their participation in the conflict.
Despite widespread reports of Ugandan military support as far north as Malakal in Upper Nile state, the minister insists that they have not played a combat role in the crisis. “There were no Ugandan forces in Malakal and [Unity state capital] Bentiu,” he said.
The minister was evasive over reports that the Ugandan air force has provided support to the government in its campaign against rebel forces. “By international law you can have bilateral agreements with friendly countries,” he said. “We have a memorandum of understanding which we signed with the Ugandan government… We are co-operating with them in so many areas.”
On February 14, South Sudan’s defence minister, Kuol Manyang Juok, admitted in an interview with the local Eye radio that the government is “footing the bill” for the involvement of Ugandan forces in operations linked to the internal conflict.
Despite the ceasefire agreement on January 23, there have been independent reports of violations by both sides. On January 30, staff of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international medical aid organisation, evacuated a hospital in Leer in Unity state citing “ongoing insecurity” that had “forced thousands of people into the bush”.
MSF did not specify who was responsible for attacks on the town, the birthplace of Riek Machar, but a rebel statement claimed that government forces “advanced on Leer town on February 1 destroying everything in their path”.
|The feeling on the ground is that even if President Salva were to step down, Dr Riek is not the person to replace him. Indeed, his rebellion and the actions of his followers call into question even the possibility of him sharing power.
– John Ashworth, Juba-based analyst,
Fighting resumed in Malakal in Upper Nile state on February 18, according to Toby Lanzer, UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in South Sudan. Philip Jiben, a spokesman for the Upper Nile state government, confirmed that Malakal has come under attack from rebel forces, but denied opposition claims that the town has been wrested from government control.
Benjamin attributed the ceasefire breaches to Riek Machar’s lack of “command and control” over opposition forces, but also admitted that the government did not always have mastery of its own troops. The massacre of Nuer civilians in Juba in December “was carried out by indisciplined troops who took their own agenda within the government forces”, he said.
“There’s a belief that there’s a military solution to the problem, but there isn’t,” said Annette Weber, head of the Middle East and Africa research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “It’s a political and institutional problem.”
IGAD began the deployment of ceasefire monitors on February 2, but there is little hope that the 18 monitors promised by the January 23 ceasefire agreement can bring an end to the fighting. “We need a minimum of 60-70 people to have an effective monitor,” said Benjamin.
In addition to the implementation of ceasefire monitoring mechanisms, peace talks in Addis Ababa are also expected to address “relief assistance” and “the political solution to the problem,” said the minister.
A political solution, though, seems as far away as ever. The government remains unwilling to consider a political accommodation with opposition figures in the SPLM.
“I cannot say people can be brought back,” said Benjamin. “If you are fighting because you want to get your job, I don’t think that is the proper political solution. That is to have a proper democratic process, where leadership of army, party, government is elected on a democratic basis.”
Benjamin also ruled out the resignation of President Salva Kiir for the sake of a peaceful settlement. “Why would he step aside? He was elected leader with 93 percent. If there are others who want to challenge him, then they will have to do so in 2015.”
The ambitions of Machar and Kiir remain a fundamental stumbling block to the eventual success of the talks. “Riek Machar’s goal is to become president of South Sudan and Salva Kiir doesn’t want to leave power,” said Peter Biar Ajak, director of the Centre for Strategic Analyses and Research in Juba. “The president wants to use the system as much as possible to stay in power. These things are difficult to reconcile.”
Kiir has been widely criticised for his authoritarian approach to the governmment of South Sudan in the past year, but in taking up arms against the government Machar has done little to enhance his own reputation.
“The feeling on the ground is that even if President Salva were to step down, Dr Riek is not the person to replace him,” said John Ashworth, a Juba-based analyst. “Indeed, his rebellion and the actions of his followers call into question even the possibility of him sharing power.”