SOUTH Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar returned to the capital, Juba, to join a transitional unity government that seeks to end more than two years of civil war in which tens of thousands of people have died.
Machar arrived Tuesday aboard a United Nations flight from neighbouring Ethiopia.
“We need to bring our people together so they can unite and heal the wounds,” said Machar, who was greeted by ministers and diplomats as he stepped out of his plane after a week-long delay that had threatened a long-negotiated peace deal.
He’s due to be sworn in to his former position as vice president, with the parliament and cabinet expanding to incorporate his rebel allies.
The joint administration is then supposed to improve economic management and the security forces to reduce corruption and human-rights abuses before elections are held within 30 months. Machar was fired as vice president in July 2013 by President Salva Kiir.
He then challenged his leadership, leading to a split within the ruling party and fighting in the military that evolved into war that December. The conflict has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes and cut oil-production by at least a third to about 160,000 barrels per day.
Machar’s was initially scheduled to return last week on April 18 return, but that was repeatedly stalled by arguments that at one point, in a country awash with weapons, came down to a dispute about just over two dozen rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that the force guarding him were allowed to have.
Now that Machar is back, ensuring he and Kiir work together, and that the thousands of rival armed forces now in separate camps inside the capital keep their guns quiet, will be an even bigger challenge.
Top rebel military commander Simon Gatwech Dual returned this Monday, in a key step forward in the floundering peace process.
“We are one South Sudan,” Dual shouted, waving a walking stick in the air as he marched off the plane.
Both sides remain deeply suspicious, and fighting continues with multiple militia forces unleashed who now pay no heed to either Kiir or Machar.
In addition to the tens of thousands of people who have been killed and more than two million driven from their homes in the conflict, the South Sudanese economy is in ruins, and over five million people need aid.
At least another 180,000 people are crammed into UN peacekeeping camps, too terrified to venture outside the razor wire fences for fear of being killed. Tensions are high, and the days ahead will be critical.
Keeping the guns silent
“We need the guns to stay silent and give people time—both as official warring parties and as individuals—with one another in coming days,” said Casie Copeland from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
Suffering is on an epic scale. Parts of the country, especially the devastated oil producing northern Unity region, have been pushed to the brink of famine. There are huge expectations Machar’s arrival means the myriad of problems will be solved swiftly—but there will be no quick fix.
Diplomats note gloomily that while Machar’s return is the “best chance yet”, the deal imposed under intense international pressure only sees the country go back to the status quo that existed before his July 2013 sacking as vice president that precipitated the war.
The agreement has already been repeatedly broken with months of fighting since it was signed, and its key power sharing formula in ruins after Kiir nearly tripled the number of regional states.
The conflict has included the abduction and rape of thousands of women and girls, massacres of civilians, recruitment of child soldiers, murder, mutilation and even cannibalism.
South Sudan is one of poorest countries on the planet, and had some world’s worst indicators for development, health and education even before over two years of war.
Machar has over 1,500 armed troops in the capital, while government forces have officially just over double that. All other soldiers have to remain at least 25 kilometres (15 miles) outside the capital.
The threat of violence at a local level remains enormous, with multiple militia forces unleashed and out of control. Machar and Kiir are decades-old rivals and even if they can work together both must also rein in powerful hardline field commanders.