Fragile peace in South Sudan as feuding leaders form unity government

UN commission report condemns human rights violations by both sides in the conflict

After two postponements and right on the cusp of a key deadline feuding South Sudanese leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are set to form a unity government. It is a move the long-suffering citizens hope can pave the way to lasting piece.

While many specifics are still to be resolved, including security arrangements, the country's president, Mr Kiir, said Mr Machar – who lives in exile – would be appointed his vice-president, and they would form the government on Saturday.

Mr Kiir has also said a dispute over how many states there should be in South Sudan would be resolved later.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but celebrations turned into a nightmare two years later when the country erupted into a brutal civil war. It was triggered when Mr Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, fired Mr Machar, then his deputy and a member of the Nuer ethnic group.


Roughly 400,000 people are believed to have died in the ensuing violence. More than 2 million have fled the country, and another 1.4 are internally displaced.

Saturday had been set as the latest date for the opposing leaders to form a unity government after two previous deadlines were missed. These were agreed initially under a peace deal signed in 2018.

"This is a major step forward," Alan Boswell, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told The Irish Times about the latest announcement. "This was the only path forward, though it remains a troubled one."

Mr Boswell was speaking from South Sudan’s capital Juba, where he said things were very quiet. “There is not nearly the tension that prefaced the failed unity government of 2016.”

On Thursday a United Nations commission of human rights released a report condemning both sides of the conflict. It spoke about a "sustained lack of political will" among the signatories of the peace deal, while accusing the government of plundering resources and accusing both sides of forcibly recruiting children.

Sexual violence

"Sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, continued to be widespread and pervasive,"said the report. "Meanwhile more than 55 per cent of civilians countrywide, mainly women and children, faced acute food insecurity due to wilful impediments of humanitarian aid by different parties, climate-induced factors and large-scale conflict-induced displacement."

In a statement to journalists in Nairobi, commission chairman Yasmin Sooka said "human rights violations, including rape and sexual violence, continue and may amount to war crimes".

She said the commission was alarmed by the number of recent executions, and that “documenting incidents of rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, abductions and sexual slavery, as well as killings has become quite normalised in South Sudan”.

Ms Sooka urged both the South Sudanese government and the wider international community to push for an end to conflict. "The people of South Sudan deserve a chance to build their lives in peace and security."

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa