When Pope Francis knelt in 2019 to kiss the feet of the two men whose rivalry helped to spark a civil war that raged for five years in South Sudan, he pleaded with them to live up to their promises in a revived peace agreement they had signed a year earlier.
The pope brought the previous warring leaders, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice President Reik Machar, for prayers at the Vatican to reconcile their differences and maintain the peace.
It took both of them nearly a year after the Vatican’s rare gesture to start forming a unity government.
While South Sudan's leaders are working hard to implement the agreement, progress has been slow, the United Nations mission in the country said.
The leaders have laid to rest ethnic rivalries and launched a nationwide campaign to disarm civilians, led by a unified army, but communal violence is still being reported in some of the country's 10 states.
Such smaller conflicts, mainly over the country’s vast natural resources, are a threat to lasting peace, creating fears that the young country could return to full-blown civil war.
Independent monitors say the next general election, expected in 2023, could expose the fault lines between the country's main tribes.
“I absolutely reject the word unpredictable. We are predictable and have a vision for 2030 – to end poverty. But wars are fuelled by many factors, ideologies and resources," Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Dau Deng Malek told The National. "South Sudan is like other countries in the region. We aren’t unique and every country has its own problems.”
Only two years after the hard-won secession from Sudan, the country fell into another deadly internecine conflict that continued until 2018.
It was a political dispute between Mr Kiir, from the Dinka tribe. and Mr Machar, from the Nuer, that erupted into armed confrontation.
The civil war was fuelled by personal and ethnic rivalries between the two main tribes – Dinka and Nuer.
Five years later, the two men signed a peace agreement with rebel factions – in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa – to end the fighting that killed almost 400,000 people, displaced more than three million and held up the country’s progress after it gained independence seven years ago.
Ten years after independence, visitors to the capital Juba will see a country suffering from underdevelopment and extreme poverty – the direct result of five years of civil war that stymied the transformation of the young country into a viable state.
The rebels who once fought against a regime that largely marginalised them now fought among themselves.
The civil war caused serious food shortages, all but destroyed the country's fledgling health sector and hit international investment badly – problems that continue to blight South Sudan today.
Ruling by decree
Young activists believe that the problem with South Sudan today lies mainly in how the senior politicians bypass existing laws and rule by decree, because they are backed by their influential tribes.
“The president comes from the Dinka tribe and, of course, the Dinka is the majority. But actually, I think South Sudan has individuals that are more than tribes. So if some decisions are made out of the peace agreement, that means there is a belief that you are more powerful than that,” said Alith Cyer Mayar, 24, a poet and author of The Cry of the South Sudanese Children, which is about hopes and ambitions of a young child from South Sudan, a country that they want to see flourishing and peaceful.
Ms Mayar said the sacrifices made by independence fighters for more than 20 years are not eclipsed by the selfishness of politicians.
“Many people are not educated. They don’t think critically and live in abject poverty. They fought a civil war they don’t understand,” she said.
“Certain government officials use, especially, young men to their advantage. They go and convince those young people in the village that they are their men from the same tribe. They are creating blind followers because if I don't have food, and you have given me money to go fight the war, I would rather take that money.”
The Jieng Council of Elders, a body representing the powerful Dinka tribe, issued a strongly worded statement in February criticising the 2018 agreement. The National obtained a copy of the original document and verified it.
It said the agreement is overly focused on power sharing among the parties and less about peace among the people of South Sudan. The council accuses the government of paying little attention to grassroots issues that split society, such as cattle raiding, communal violence and she spread of weapons among civilians.
“The country seems to be heading for another war,” read the statement, titled "Breaking the Silence – The Way Forward".
It said the agreement made people power hungry even in rural areas that had never experienced unrest before, or others that still suffer outbursts of violence.
“This has unnecessarily politicised and militarised normal social relations in our rural areas,” it said, singling out “leadership failure” as the single most important drawback of the political stalemate.
Mr Malek agreed that the 2018 agreement was imposed on them by foreign and regional entities he refused to name.
He said the current structure of the way of governance is not working.
“The problem with the current peace [agreement] is that it was mediated and negotiated in bad faith," he said.
"The foreign parties were imposing their own vision. For example, they didn’t want x and y in government, it was a bad deal put on us. For example, we have five vice presidents. You can never have five vice presidents for a country of 12 million people. Can you believe that we have 550 members of parliament and more than 30 ministries?"
Mr Malek said anyone who has spent time in the Middle East and Africa knows the region crackles with conspiracy and third parties that care only about their own interests.
“We were not allowed as a sovereign country to negotiate and discuss among ourselves and see what’s best for the South Sudanese,” Mr Malek said. He was asked several times to name which foreign parties he was talking about, but refused.
“They are after their interests and bring other factors to fuel internal conflicts in the country, like the human rights issue. As if they were telling us if you want peace, you have to accept it.”
The 2018 deal was mediated mainly by the ousted regime of Omar Al Bashir, in Khartoum and Uganda. It was supported by the US, the UK and Norway, as well as the United Nations.
In a statement in September last year, the three western nations expressed concerns about the communal violence that killed hundreds in the wake of the signing of the agreement, which further disrupted livelihoods and humanitarian access, with more than 50 per cent of the population of 12 million facing acute food insecurity.
Senior government officials have also been hit with sanctions from the US for human rights abuses and corruption.
Ms Mayar, who moved to Juba in 2020 with her family from neighbouring Uganda, says it is unfortunate that the majority of people of South Sudan mourn the state of their country today, 10 years after independence.
"This's not what we fought for. The leaders fought before for an independent state with better education, better health system. They fought for better roads. They fought for a better life for a happier life, which isn't here today," she said.