South Sudan struggles to avert 'catastrophe'

By Peter Martell
Sudan A South Sudanese ICRC (International Red Cross Committee) worker is seen next to body bags with the remains of victims of the past days violence in Juba, on July 16, 2016.  By Samir Bol (AFP/File)
A South Sudanese ICRC (International Red Cross Committee) worker is seen next to body bags with the remains of victims of the past days violence in Juba, on July 16, 2016. By Samir Bol (AFP/File)

Juba (AFP) - Street sweepers in South Sudan's capital Juba have cleaned up the blood and bullet casings after gun battles at the presidential palace, but salvaging peace will be a far harder task, analysts warn.

A shaky ceasefire has held since fighting that raged in Juba last week, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

The country's peace agreement is in tatters, but diplomats balk at throwing it away entirely.

AU special envoy Alpha Oumar Konare has pleaded for the deal to be rebuilt, warning that the consequences of failure are dire.

"If we cannot stop, it will be a catastrophe," he said.

The violence, which dominated an African Union summit on Sunday, is the latest in a war that broke out in December 2013.

It has pitted soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir against troops backing his long time rival Vice-President Riek Machar, who technically ended his rebellion to forge a unity government in April.

- 'Leaders have failed' -

Hopes are low, however. After a string of failed peace deals, diplomats' faith in the two top men is at breaking point.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the people "have been let down by their own leadership" and called for more sanctions on those blocking peace, an arms embargo, and to bolster the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.

It is a message echoed by veteran journalist Alfred Taban, arrested on Saturday after he wrote in an editorial in the Juba Monitor that the leaders had "completely failed".

Academic Alex de Waal has warned he fears the political system may be "too deformed to be reformed".

For now, the grossly impoverished nation "can only function either with a well-financed big man or a ruthless enforcer at the top", de Waal said in a recent article.

But with the government both nearly bankrupt and unable to impose order, neither option works, he said.

"The country is too diverse and its communities too well armed for an old-style dictatorship to be possible, even if it were a morally acceptable option," he added.

But for those trying to stop South Sudan from collapsing entirely, even a flawed peace deal is better than none at all.

"For internationals to dismiss the agreement as irrelevant or unsalvageable at this stage would only play into the hands of those hardliners that seek continued military confrontation," said former ceasefire monitor Aly Verjee.

Machar has been in hiding since the July 8 battles at the presidential palace, and the country will remain in limbo until new political and military deals are struck.

His men were forced to flee as tanks and helicopter gunships pounded their positions with overwhelming firepower.

It remains unclear what force he can still command, and his authority over his generals and troops is also in question.

Casie Copeland, of the International Crisis Group, said it was the best peace that could be made at the time, preventing an escalation of the conflict.

"It halted the fighting, created a framework for reform, transitional justice and elections and prevented regional powers being further sucked into South Sudan's war," Copeland said.

The situation is dire. Over a third of South Sudan's population are expected to face severe food shortages over the coming months, and there is a real risk of what the UN has termed a "hunger catastrophe".

The economy is in ruins with runaway inflation and people are suffering.

- 'No future here' -

The peace deal was based on buying loyalty with power and cash, two critical elements never delivered.

Kiir undermined the fundamental power-sharing pillar of the deal by nearly tripling regional states, while oil cash that bought support and once provided some 98 percent of government revenues has gone.

Production was cut due to fighting, while a global slump in prices meant that what landlocked Juba earned for its crude about equalled its pipeline export payments to Khartoum.

It is doubtful at best if the rivals could even claw back the peace deal to the status quo - but critics say that placing two rival armies in the same city without integration was always a recipe for disaster.

"It placed the security of the capital city Juba jointly in the hands of the two deeply hostile forces," said de Waal, who has spent years involved in peace negotiations in Sudan and South Sudan, saying Juba was "arm twisted" by the international community to agree.

For now, more peacekeepers and the threat of sanctions seem the international community's main options.

But more peacekeepers may not make the UN mission any more effective.

The UN has been widely criticised for failing to intervene, instead hunkering down inside its bases, where over half of the peacekeepers are tied up guarding 160,000 civilians sheltering behind razor wire.

"We can't continue like this for ever," said vegetable seller Rebekah Joseph, a mother-of-three who fled the fighting for shelter in a church in Juba.

"I'm going home to my village when it is safe, for there seems no future here, because nothing ever changes," she said.