BARCELONA, Spain – South Sudan's government is spending millions of dollars next week to celebrate a "final final" peace deal to end a five-year civil war. One problem: The rebel leader who agreed to share power is reluctant to come home.
Riek Machar's hesitation amid security concerns is the latest sign that one of Africa's deadliest conflicts might be merely on pause.
Worried observers can list several more: Key implementation deadlines have not been met. Cease-fire violations continue amid shocking abuses. And detainees who should have been freed remain behind bars.
"There's been no indication that the peace deal's been working," said Denay J. Chagor, chairman of South Sudan's United Movement opposition party, who helped negotiate the peace talks.
He told The Associated Press it looks unlikely that Machar and President Salva Kiir, whose previous attempts at sharing power have erupted in gunfire, will ever work together again despite their recent handshakes.
Under the peace deal, Machar is meant to return as Kiir's deputy. Tensions between their supporters led to the outbreak of the civil war in late 2013, and Machar's second attempt as vice president under a previous agreement lasted a few months before fighting broke out in 2016 and he fled on foot into exile.
In a letter to Kiir last week, Machar said he would return for Tuesday's event only if the president meets three demands: Lifting the state of emergency, releasing all prisoners of war and allowing free movement for opposition parties currently based abroad.
"It would be absolutely unprofessional and a security blunder for the (opposition) to allow him go to Juba without his protection force, keeping in mind the unwillingness of the regime to adhere to the cease-fire," opposition spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel told the AP. The government must show a commitment to the peace deal by first silencing the guns, he said.
Kiir this week tried to be reassuring, telling Kenya's Citizen TV that Machar's safety is secured by the government.
South Sudan's civil war has crippled the nation, killing almost 400,000 people with violence and disease according to one recent estimate. Attacks occurred even as the warring sides negotiated the peace deal, with both opposition and government forces accused of making a final grab for territory before the fighting stopped.
Rape has been a widespread weapon of war. A United Nations report this month accused the opposition of abducting women and girls as young as 12 and lining them up so commanders could choose "wives." Those not selected were left to be raped repeatedly by other fighters, the report said after hearing from victims and witnesses.
"There may be a new peace deal in South Sudan but government forces are committing new abuses against civilians," said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch, which this week reported that troops attacked civilians and burned homes in Western Bahr el Gazal region from June through September, forcing tens of thousands to flee.
While South Sudan's government and regional countries that brokered the agreement have trumpeted the peace deal, it has been met with skepticism elsewhere. For the first time the United States, Britain and Norway, the troika that ushered South Sudan into independence, decided not to sign the agreement, saying they remained "concerned about the parties' level of commitment."
Six weeks since the signing, some observers say there is little to show.
According to a progress report released earlier this month by the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee charged with overseeing implementation, several deadlines have been missed.
Those include the formation of two key bodies meant to be established within days of the deal: the Joint Defense Board, responsible for securing the permanent cease-fire, and the Independent Boundaries Commission, tasked with defining the number of states.
While acknowledging there have been setbacks, South Sudan's government denies that things aren't progressing.
"It is not true, the peace agreement is being implemented in letter and spirit and those who criticize it think peace is a one-night event instead of it being a process," said government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny.
Recent days have shown some movement. This week a separate committee tasked with monitoring the peace deal's early implementation convened for the first time in Sudan to discuss a roadmap for peace. Last week the government released 24 political detainees.
While some South Sudan experts are not surprised at the shaky start, at least one doesn't see the situation stabilizing any time soon.
"Too many delays and the deal can stall out," Alan Boswell, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told the AP. "If the parties are pushed too hard, though, the accord can collapse as it did last time."
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