Everywhere one goes in the capital of Juba, everybody is talking about the expected return of the former rebel leader Dr Riek Machar, which they see as a confirmation that the August 2015 peace agreement is real.
There is a combination of an impatient and angry populace hoping for immediate peace, and a disappointed international community and development partners that have seen the resources they have invested in the once-promising young nation go to waste.
Despite his five months’ delay to return to South Sudan due to failure by the peace partners to keep to the timelines of security arrangements, Dr Machar will finally return to South Sudan to help set up the transitional government of national unity.
Most of the residents say that the population of South Sudan are tired of bloodletting and are yearning for peace at whatever cost. But is this the beginning of a lasting peace in South Sudan, which has endured wars for the last 50 years? Hardly.
First, President Salva Kiir signed the peace agreement with reservations because he believes it was imposed on South Sudan by the Troika – UK, US and Norway – through the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The Troika provides the bulk of funds for the South Sudan peace process.
Veteran journalist, Alfred Taban, who is also the publisher of Juba Monitor, is convinced that Dr Machar and President Salva Kiir have a history of not getting along together, but will just endure the 30 months of transitional government because of pressure from the international community.
The permanent ceasefire that was supposed to take effect within 72 hours of the signing of the peace agreement last August has been violated with impunity as both sides try to gain more territory for political bargaining.
South Sudan descended into conflict in December 2013 when President Kiir accused Dr Machar – his former vice president whom he had sacked in July the same year – of plotting a coup.
Dr Machar, on the other hand, accused President Kiir of stage-managing a coup to get rid of him and other elements in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), who demanded internal party reforms.
But Adel Sandrai, a member of parliament for the SPLM-in Opposition, argues that the transitional government is a good development in the politics of South Sudan because the monolithic SPLM has now been split into three with disparate interests, while other political parties, the clergy and women’s groups will also join the government to provide oversight.
Yet challenges remain in a country that seceded from the former larger Sudan in July 2011 on the basis of decades of marginalisation and religious discrimination. The country remains militarised and the international community is wary of diehards on both sides, who fear that peace would mean they will be required to account for war crimes.
There are other rebel forces still fighting who are not included in the peace agreement: Arrow Boys in Western Equatoria, the Cobra Squad of David Yau Yau, and the splinter group from Dr Machar, SPLM-IO, led by notorious warlord, Gen. Peter Gatdet.
According to Jacob Chol, the head of the political science department at the University of Juba, the international community must be firm with the South Sudan leadership and experience has shown that they work better when under pressure.
“The country is still highly militarised. There is a danger that should the two disagree at the government level, it [would] percolate to their supporters who [would] start quarrelling at their level. It will take time to convince the people of South Sudan to understand that political differences does not necessarily mean war,” said Chol.
Amidst suspicion and bitterness arising from the atrocities that have been committed by both sides in the last two and a half years, the burden on moving South Sudan forward lies on the shoulders of former Botswana president, Festus Mogae.
Mogae, a respected figure in Africa who gave up power 18 months before the end of his term, is the chairman of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), which is charged with overseeing the implementation.
He has succeeded in cooling down tempers when they flare by shuttling between President Kiir and Dr Machar to convince them to agree to work together and tone down the rhetoric from their diehard followers.
According to the agreement, JMEC is mandated to have a final say whenever there are differences on policy at the leadership and cabinet level.
“The agreement is at risk. Having come so close to the formation of the transitional government of national unity, all parties must ensure that the spirit of reconciliation, compromise and dialogue embodied by the agreement should be protected,” Mogae said recently, while trying to form the transitional government that ought to have been formed in October 2015.
At risk it is, because Kiir and Machar are not only suspicious of each other, they are both preparing to contest the presidency in 2018 when the term of the transitional government comes to an end.
Dr Cirino Hiteng, one of the former detainees, is convinced that the two main partners have been dilly-dallying because each of them is not sure what the other is planning once they come together.
The coming of SPLM-IO troops is creating nerves in Kiir’s camp that any disagreement could lead to serious clashes too close to the seat of power.
Among the challenges is that the country will have to live with two commander-in-chiefs and joint chiefs of general staff before the two armies are merged in 18 months.
The other challenge is that South Sudan is a militarised society where political differences are solved through the gun. The high illiteracy level leaves the majority of the population susceptible to manipulation by warlords seeking to settle political grudges by armed means.
To crown it all, the transitional government will be totally dependent on the goodwill of the donors and partners to the peace process to rescue South Sudan from the verge of economic collapse. The fall in global oil prices has been particularly devastating to the economy of the country since it derives 98% of its income from oil.