"South Sudan cannot afford to miss this opportunity for a second chance,” Donald Booth, the US Special Envoy to the Sudans was saying just last Thursday. “It will be difficult to get a third chance.”
Two days later the South Sudanese were doing their best to blow that second chance, as vicious fighting once again erupted between the troops of President Salva Kiir and his Vice-President-cum-mortal enemy, Riek Machar, in the capital Juba.
The first chance which Booth referred to was the secession of South Sudan from Sudan five years ago this past Saturday after some 30 years of war between the south and the Sudan government in Khartoum.
Kiir and Machar blew that promising first chance when the bitter personal rivalry between them ignited a major military clash between their soldiers in December 2013. That rapidly expanded into a very ugly and often inhuman sectarian civil war between Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s Nuer ethnic groups.
Untold atrocities later, the two leaders grudgingly signed a ceasefire and peace agreement last August, under heavy pressure from neighbouring countries and the international community.
Under that agreement Kiir would remain as president and Machar would return, in a transitional government, to the vice-president position he occupied before Kiir fired him from the post mid-2013, thus setting off the events of December that year.
The problem was that Kiir and Machar had implemented very little of the August agreement, Booth said. Machar, fearful for his own safety, only returned to Juba in April this year, months after the deadline for the transitional government to be launched.
The regional body supervising the peace talks, Igad, and the international countries supporting it, brought Kiir and Machar together in June when they agreed to a number of actions to kick-start the stalled implementation of the August 2015 agreemennt.
But as Booth told journalists last Thursday, they hadn’t implemented any of those. Some of these were fairly simple, such as lifting the state of emergency and releasing prisoners of war.
Others are more complicated. Such as negotiating how many regional states there should be within the state of South Sudan.
Kiir unilaterally expanded the number of these states from 10 to 28 on Christmas Eve last year, which greatly aggravated the mistrust and friction between him and Machar.
That move also provoked localised tensions and violence among different ethnic groups because they suddenly found themselves being governed by leaders from other groups, or otherwise losing the autonomy they had enjoyed before.
South Africa is one of the countries which are supposed to help the South Sudanese establish a boundaries commission to resolve this issue.
But as Booth pointed out, the South Sudanese had not even been able yet to agree on the commission’s terms of reference.
Critically, Kiir and Machar had also been unable to make any progress so far on implementing security agreements, such as cantoning and registering combatants. The two sides had agreed on a number of cantonment sites but then Kiir’s side reneged on some of these sites, because it said some of them were in areas where Machar’s faction never had fighters.
Perhaps, even more critically, a joint integrated police force, which was supposed by now to have taken over security in Juba, had not been formed because Kiir’s government had not provided its nominees for that force, Booth said.
And the joint military groups which were supposed to go around the country to ensure implementation of the August ceasefire had also not been formed.
Nor had the Joint Military Command Group, which was supposed to co-ordinate the implementation of these and other security arrangements, met since May, he added.
In its usual fashion of massively ducking responsibility, the South Sudan government had blamed a lack of funding from the international community for the failure to implement all these agreements.
“And that is clearly not the case,” Booth said, adding that when the South Sudanese reached agreement among themselves on all these issued “and show that they have some seriousness of purpose”, the money would flow.
Until the dust has settled, it won’t be quite clear what triggered the current clashes. Kiir’s people say Machar’s people attacked them at a road block. Machar’s people say Kiir’s people attacked Machar’s house.
What is abundantly clear is that all the elaborately negotiated security measures, which were precisely meant to avoid such a clash, had not been put in place.
Though he doesn’t say so, one could read between the lines of Booth’s description of the problem that Kiir has been the most remiss in not keeping his side of the bargain.
But Machar is no angel either.
Booth said these unresolved issues would be handed over to the AU and Igad at the AU summit in Kigali this week Now they also have a new outbreak of open warfare to try to deal with. It’s uncanny how some such crisis always seems to erupt just before an AU summit.
Yet it’s hard to see how all the continental leaders and all their international backers are going to be able to put Humpty Dumpty together once again and give the wretched South Sudanese a third chance.