South Sudan Opposition Turns Down Kiir’s Olive Branch

A recent peace overture by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is failing to convince the opposition to go down the road of ending the civil war that has been ravaging South Sudan for six years now.

Kiir – under pressure from the international community to reach a peace deal with former vice-president Riek Machar by February 22 – decided on February 15 to cut down the number of states in his country from 32 to ten. He also decided to partition South Sudan into three administrative regions.

In doing this, Kiir succumbed to pressure from the opposition who view the return to the original ten-state division as essential for power-sharing in South Sudan.

Rejecting Kiir’s Olive Branch

On February 16, Machar – who lives outside South Sudan, even as he has been commanding the mutiny against Kiir since late 2013 – rejected the latter’s peace offer.

Machar said in a statement that he appreciated the South Sudanese President’s decision to cut down the number of states in the war-torn country to ten. However, he objected to the three administrative-region division. He rang the alarm over dividing South Sudan into three administrative areas, saying this division would increase tensions in the country.

“We therefore call upon President Kiir to reconsider this idea,” Machar said.

South Sudan Statehood Dream Turning into a Nightmare

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in January, 2011. The millions of southern Sudanese citizens who voted in the January referendum to decide whether they preferred to remain part of Sudan or create their own independent state were hoping that the new state would turn into a haven for tolerance, development and hope. Soon, however, this dream turned into a nightmare.

The current crisis started in the country when a group loyal to then-vice-president Machar tried to stage a coup against Kiir. Kiir’s guards succeeded in foiling the coup and arresting some of the officers and soldiers participating in it. Nonetheless, the attempt split South Sudan and opened the door for a new cycle of violence that refuses to end.

The ensuing fighting between Kiir’s and Machar’s camps left tens of thousands of South Sudanese citizens dead and tens of thousands more injured. It also displaced millions of people.

Doubling Back

South Sudan was made up of ten states when it initially gained independence from Sudan in January 2011. In 2015, President Kiir raised the number of states to 28. He then raised the number to 32.

On February 15, Kiir described the decision to reduce the number of states to ten as a “painful” compromise. This compromise, he said, is necessary for the achievement of peace. He also sacked the governors of all the 32 states, noting that the appointment of the new governors of the ten states would be decided after forming a unity government.

Oil at the Center of the Conflict

The oil-rich northern state of Ruweng is expected to be at the center of contention between Kiir’s and Machar’s camps. Oil is the backbone of the economy of South Sudan, giving the fledgling state more than 60% of its income. This is why most of the fighting in the past years, since the beginning of the conflict, has occurred in this northern state.

Everybody was hoping that Kiir’s peace overture – namely the reduction of the number of states in his country and the new administrative division – would entice the opposition to sit down at the negotiating table and reach a deal before February 22. After all, in 2018, the United Nations and the U.S. forced rival parties in the country to sit together and agree to make peace—temporarily.

However, this peace is becoming a far-fetched dream, especially if Machar does not budge from his position on the new administrative division and Kiir refuses to reconsider this division.