Catholic bishops in South Sudan were continuing to underline the urgency of delivering peace on the ground even as arch-rivals signed a series of peace agreements aimed at ending a deadly conflict that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of people.
Amid repeated appeals for peace by Catholic bishops and other church leaders, President Salva Kiir, rebel leader Riek Machar, and other opposition groups signed the final agreement in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on September 12. The terms of the agreement will see Machar return to government as a vice-president. It has also opened the door for forgiveness and reconciliation after years of senseless war.
“Let us forgive ourselves and work together for the interest of the people of South Sudan,” said Michael Makuei, the Minister of Information, as the parties committed to the new pact, called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (Re-ARCSS).
But the emerging question is whether it is dawn at last for the war-torn country.
Analysts view the pact as the best chance to end permanently a deadly conflict which has been unfolding in the world’s youngest nation since 2013.
“The people on the ground want the peace. Those [refugees] outside the country want to come back home. This is why we are saying any attempts to bring peace for our country are welcome,” said Catholic priest James Oyet Latansio, the general secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches.
The clerics are aware that numerous agreements have been signed in the past, but broken soon after. In 2015, the parties signed on to a similar agreement, known as ARCSS, but it collapsed after just a few days.
The new agreement expands the cabinet and parliament, providing for 35 cabinet ministers—20 drawn from the government, nine from Machar’s SPLM-IO, and six from other groups. The parliament will have 550 members—332 from the government side and 127 from the opposition.
The final agreement is the product of a series of pacts touching on multiple subjects.
On June 27, the groups signed what is known the Khartoum declaration, which included a permanent ceasefire. Some other key highlights include the disarming of civilians, the renewed provision of basic services, and the improvement of the infrastructure destroyed the war. It creates space for the rehabilitation of oilfields and includes a commitment to withdraw armies or armed factions from urban centers.
A detailed security arrangement was signed on July 6. After the agreement, President Kiir pardoned Machar and other rebel leaders. The agreement meant that Machar could return to his position as vice-president in an interim government of national unity. On August 5, the groups had signed a final ceasefire and power-sharing in Khartoum.
At first, Father Latansio had viewed the initial pact as dividing the “cake” (i.e., political positions) at the top, without delivering needed services to the ordinary person on the ground.
“The cost of living for the common person is still very high,” Father Latansio said. “Food is a challenge and many things remain the same. Our hope and pray things will change.”
On the ground, a huge humanitarian challenge has been unfolding, with communities going without basic necessities due to the insecure situation. The people have depended on relief food since many cannot reach their farms to grow crops. The local populations have often been trapped in battles involving armed groups which bear allegiance to the politicians and rebel leaders.
Although the churches have been encouraging the citizens to try and plant food, that has proved too risky.
“They can only farm near their homestead or house compounds,” said Father Latansio, “Going to farm remains too risky. They risk being attacked or abducted for ransom.”
South Sudan—a largely Christian country that includes sizable populations following African traditional religions—won its independence from Sudan—a largely Muslim country—in 2011. But barely two years after independence, political differences between Kiir and Machar ignited deadly violence when the former accused the latter of attempting to overthrow him.
Within months, the violence escalated into an all-out conflict, pitting Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against Machar’s Nuer. The violence later spread to other parts of the country and has since included new actors, according to church leaders.
Agencies estimate that tens of thousands have been killed in the war the Catholic bishops have often described as senseless. It has also displaced an estimated 4.5 million within the country, according to the UN, and turned nearly 1.3 million into refugees to neighboring countries.
“Tens of thousands of deaths, millions of people displaced, looting, rape, hunger, economic collapse, breakdown of the rule of law, destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, children denied education, families denied health care… these represent failure,” the Catholic bishops said earlier this year.
Despite the challenges, churches in South Sudan have remained the only stable organization offering much-needed services. The churches have been moving humanitarian aid, while providing pastoral care, lobbying the international community for support, and brokering peace deals at the grassroots.
“Clergy, the religious, and pastors are still living with the people. They are where the people are, offering pastoral care and raising the voice of the voiceless,” said Father Latansio.
In June 2015, the South Sudan churches launched an Action Plan for Peace, which is still ongoing at the grassroots. Catholic Church officials say priests and pastors are working to change the narrative from war to peace. They are hosting neutral forums and also reconciling the communities.
“Signing the paper will be useless, unless the peace is in the heart,” said the priest.
At the same time, the agreement is viewed by some as resulting from coercion and incentives from regional and international powers, rather than from the willingness of the politicians. Some observers say the agreement lacks meaningful checks and balances on the powerful presidency, and is simply dividing up spoils among top politicians.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway—also known as Troika Countries—doubted whether the agreement would be fully implemented, following violations of the ceasefire agreement and attacks on civilians and aid workers.
“We remain concerned,” the countries said in a statement, “about the parties’ level of commitment to this agreement.”
Bishops and analysts agree, however, that in the end meaningful peace will not arrive in South Sudan unless the country undertakes radical reforms to resolve the immediate humanitarian, economic, and security challenges.