The number of rebel politicians and military officers in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa has dwindled. The battery of television journalists has thinned, worn down by weeks of the “hurry up and wait” seesaw of the South Sudan peace talks in the Ethiopian capital.
The negotiating sides in the conflict have been meeting here for more than a fortnight but a deal to end the fighting which broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on December 15 remains elusive.
Thousands have been killed since a political contest between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Dr Riek Machar turned into a war that has split the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement.
On Monday representatives of the two sides were moved out of the Sheraton to another hotel in Addis. Officials from the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the eight-country regional body mediating the talks, say the Sheraton was pre-booked by delegations arriving for the annual African Union heads of state summit later this month. The talks will continue at the Sheraton.
A member of the mediating team chuckles that maybe moving the rival teams away from the $450-a-night Sheraton to a cheaper and less comfortable hotel will bring a faster agreement. He says it jokingly but his words are wrapped up in layers of frustration. It is not that IGAD is short of money; the European Union said Friday it was giving a million Euros to support the mediation effort. An impressive former embassy building is being renovated; those in the know say it will house a secretariat for the South Sudan peace process.
Patience running out
Many are running out of patience, however. By Friday two draft agreements had been reached on the cessation of hostilities as well as the release of the pro-Riek Machar politicians arrested after fighting broke out last month.
However, the government delegation, which had returned to Juba for consultations on the two agreements, had not returned to Addis Ababa by Monday morning. Instead IGAD announced that it would organise a heads of state summit in Juba on Thursday in what appears to be a case of diplomatic efforts responding to military developments in South Sudan.
On Saturday government troops backed by the Ugandan army retook the strategic town of Bor, which has changed hands during the fighting.
The entry of Ugandan forces has tilted the military balance in favour of the pro-Kiir forces and dampened the appetite for a quick peace deal in Juba. “We have been ready to sign the deal since last week,” Mabior Garang, a spokesperson for the pro-Machar delegation to the Addis talks and son of the late Col John Garang, South Sudan’s founding father, said on Monday in Addis. “The Government of South Sudan was ready to sign the peace deal until Uganda intervened.”
Exit Ugandan troops
Sources close to the mediation told this newspaper that the draft cessation of hostilities agreement requires external forces, or more specifically the Ugandan army, to leave South Sudan within 24 hours of the agreement being signed.
“President Kiir wants a military victory and signing the deal now would take away his Ugandan support which is what has given him an advantage in the fighting,” a senior Sudanese government official familiar with the mediation said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “It is in his interest to delay the signing for as long as possible and seize as much of a military advantage as he can in the interim.”
Although pro-Machar troops control parts of the oil-producing states, the loss of Bor and the potential loss of more territory threatens to undermine their negotiation positions. The rebel side has already made concessions in the draft agreements drawn up by IGAD. After initially calling for the lifting of the state of emergency as a precondition, the pro-Machar team agreed to form a joint committee led by IGAD after the signing of a peace deal, to determine whether conditions justify the continued martial law.
The pro-Machar team has also agreed to have the political detainees released under a presidential pardon, although they insist on their innocence. However, the pro-Kiir team says the president can only pardon the detainees after they have been charged and convicted in a court of law.
Release of officials