South Sudan’s leaders on Vatican retreat to save peace deal

With an agreement to end five years of fighting in the balance, rivals head to Rome

South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, center, and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, shake hands during a welcome ceremony at Chigi palace, Government's office, ahead of their meeting, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. The Vatican has invited South Sudan’s president and opposition leader Riek Machar for a two-day spiritual retreat, attended also by Mayardit, meant to foster peace after the country's five-year civil war and build confidence in its fragile peace deal.  (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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South Sudanese rebel leader, Riek Machar, landed in Rome on Wednesday to attend a “spiritual retreat” at the Vatican with his arch-rival, President Salva Kiir, after initial claims he had been blocked from travelling.

The retreat, arranged by Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is “an occasion for encounter and reconciliation, in a spirit of respect and trust”, a Vatican statement said.

It is a last-ditch attempt to save a critical peace deal – signed in September, but now hanging by a thread – designed to end five years of civil war between Mr Machar’s Nuer militias and the Dinka-majority army of Mr Kiir.

Overall, 400,000 people have been killed and 4.4 million displaced since 2013.

"This is the crunch time for South Sudan's new peace deal," Alan Boswell, an expert on the country at the International Crisis Group, told The National. "Absent a new breakthrough, odds look grim that the deal will stay on track."

Mr Kiir departed from the capital of Juba on Tuesday. But the event looked in jeopardy until Wednesday morning, when a public relations official for Mr Machar announced on Twitter that he had boarded a plane from Khartoum to Rome.

Reportedly under house arrest in Sudan, Mr Machar claimed he had not secured approval to travel from IGAD, the East African regional bloc, causing the official to accuse “some quarters” of the organisation of sabotage. In a letter on Tuesday, Mr Machar appealed to IGAD to let him attend, although a statement from the bloc denied any restrictions had been placed on him.

His arrival in Italy offers some hope of finally ending a conflict that has devastated the world’s youngest country.

A similar 2015 deal collapsed within months, sending Mr Machar fleeing on foot into the Democratic Republic of the Congo under a volley of gunfire.

The pair first fell out in 2013, when Mr Kiir accused Mr Machar, then his vice president, of plotting a coup. Just two years after getting independence from Sudan, the country was engulfed by civil war. Its rich bounty of oil stayed largely underground.

The latest deal, brokered by Ethiopia and Sudan, will see Mr Machar return to Juba in May as one of five vice presidents in a 36-month unity government, ahead of elections in 2022. Meanwhile, the fighting forces of both men will be incorporated into one national army.

But the integration process is dragging, and bouts of fighting have returned to the war-scarred south. Control of the capital’s security – a hot-button issue – is yet to be negotiated.

Mr Kiir visited the Vatican less than a month ago and is seeking $285m in aid from the international community to support the transition.

“This could be the last face to face meeting between Mr Kiir and Mr Machar before the May deadline,” said Mr Boswell.

They will be joined in Rome by South Sudanese politicians and religious leaders, who command great authority in the country and have stepped in to deliver social welfare provisions.

TOPSHOT - Internally displaced persons (IDP's) take part in a traditional Shilluk church ceremony at a protection of civilian site in Malakal, South Sudan on March 31, 2019. Some 30,000 internally displaced people continue to inhabit the camp in the north of the country despite the signing of a cessation of hostilities between government and opposition forces last year. / AFP / ALEX MCBRIDE
Internally displaced persons take part in a traditional Shilluk church ceremony at a protection of civilian site in Malakal, South Sudan. AFP

"However, moral authority alone cannot deliver [peace] without the will of the political leadership, which is currently lacking," Ed Hobey-Hamsher, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told The National.

Attendees at the retreat will each receive a Bible, signed by Pope Francis, bearing the message, “Seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.”