South Sudan rebel chief back in Juba, calls for unity

South Sudan rebel chief Riek Machar returns to Juba to join a unity government formed after more than two years of civil war.

Photo by: AFP (Archive)
Photo by: AFP (Archive)

This file photo taken on September 18, 2015 shows South Sudan's former Vice President and South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar talking during a press conference in Khartoum. [AFP]

Updated Apr 27, 2016

South Sudan rebel chief Riek Machar finally returned to Juba on Tuesday, urging people to come together as he prepared to join a unity government formed to end more than two years of ferocious civil war.

“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.

Machar, who had originally been due back on April 18, was expected to head immediately from the airport to the presidential palace to be sworn in.

South Sudan declared independence in July 2011 after decades of conflict with Sudan's authorities in Khartoum, with Machar serving as vice-president from then until July 2014 when he was sacked by President Salvar Kiir.

His delayed arrival had infuriated the international community after the months of negotiations spent on getting the rivals to return to the same city and share power in the world’s newest country.

Ensuring they work together in a unity government, 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.

"The return of the designated first vice president should open a new chapter for the country. It should allow the real transition to begin," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council.

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.

Deep suspicion

Both sides remain deeply suspicious, and fighting continues with multiple militia forces unleashed who now pay no heed to either Kiir or Machar.

Machar’s return had been 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.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than two million driven from their homes in the conflict, which has reignited ethnic divisions and been characterised by gross human rights abuses.

The economy is in ruins, over five million people need aid and over 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.

“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.

‘Best chance yet’

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 fighting erupted in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.

A billboard featuring South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and the opposition leader Riek Machar in Juba. [AFP]

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 double over 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.