Thousands of citizens gathered in Juba to celebrate “dawn of peace”
“Peace has come. And it is here today to stay.”
These words, uttered by President Salva Kiir Mayardit, were greeted with jubilation by a sea of thousands of rejoicing, sun-defying, peace-starved South Sudanese packed in the Freedom Square and Dr. John Garang de Mabior Mausoleum area in central Juba.
In a gesture of reconciliation, Salva Kiir made a second popular announcement: he declared the imminent freedom of James Gatdet and South African national William John Endley. The two, accused of treason, have been detained since late 2016 and used to work as former opposition leader Riek Machar’s spokesperson and adviser respectively.
Celebrating the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan together with national and international dignitaries was, however, the main course attracting the huge crowd, some of which arrived at the crack of dawn.
“To see parties that have previously been divided by violence coming together here in Juba, in a public sign of unity, sends a strong signal to the citizens of this country that you are genuinely committed to end the suffering and building durable peace,” David Shearer, Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, remarked.
Apart from the main protagonists, President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, set to be reinstated as the country’s number two, heads of states and other high-level representatives from at least thirteen countries attended the event, under the official theme “Celebrating the Dawn of Peace, Appreciating Friends, Cherishing Reconciliation and Unity”.
Leaders from other opposition groups, such as the National Democratic Movement (Lam Akol) and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (Gabriel Changson Chang) could also be spotted gracing the significant VIP section at the much-anticipated ceremony.
Mr. Shearer, also the Special Representative of the United Nation’s Secretary-General, paid special tribute to heads of the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in general and the governments of neighbouring Sudan and Uganda in particular for their critical role in securing the peace agreement. The presence of the presidents of both countries, Omar al-Bashir and Yoveri Museveni respectively, were obvious highlights of the occasion.
After a few “false starts” to the protracted peace process, a natural question on many people’s mind, including that of a reporter from the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC), is whether the deal signed in September this year will hold.
“It [the peace agreement] will last. Together we will make the impossible possible,” Lam Akol assured the SSBC journalist, while also hinting at the daunting task of implementing the accord in its entirety.
That kind of belief and trust, also voiced by political analysts in the SSBC studio, who, amongst other descriptions, referred to the celebrations as “what will go down in history as the beginning of the Second Republic of South Sudan” and the “wedding day” of the country, was singled out by the UNMISS head as “the key ingredient needed at every step [going forward].”
“The big challenge ahead is to build trust and confidence between the parties – and between the parties and the people,” Mr. Shearer said, adding that generating such peace-inducing trust is the responsibility of “all of us here today; officials, civil society, religious leaders and the international community.”
It turned into a day of elation, solemn promises and mutual agreement. Signatories of the peace agreement unanimously stressed both their commitment to translating peace-promoting words into action and the need for the international community to support the way forward politically and economically; representatives of said international community praised the unequivocal stance of the formerly warring parties and reiterated its continuous readiness to assist.
“We will stand alongside the parties as they move forward in peace. We will use our resources and our presence across the country to support reconciliation and peacebuilding,” Mr. Shearer said, expressing his conviction that other international bodies “will be persuaded [to do the same] by a demonstration of political will by parties to implement the agreement.”
While intercontinental resources may be needed to make further progress, several speakers expressed their pride in how Africa has led the way to reach this day of commemorations.
The representative of the African Union, Joram M. Biswaro, labelled the achievement “Made in Africa”. Salva Kiir, while commending the international support offered in general terms, talked about “African solutions to African problems”. Riek Machar, while also grateful for the efforts made by the United Nations, the Security Council and others, reserved most of his appreciation for the essential steps taken by neighbouring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan to push the revitalized agreement over the line.
Machar, however, lavished praise closer to home as well, stressing the active participation and inputs of the South Sudanese civil society in general and youth, women’s groups and faith-based organizations in particular.
“They certainly spent many sleepless nights during the peace negotiations,” he acknowledged.
Sahle Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia and the only female voice in the VIP choir, marked her first official state visit by first addressing women and children – “the ones most vulnerable to suffering” – by urging them to “make sure that your leaders honour the promises and commitments they have made”.
With clashes persisting in a few parts of South Sudan, President Zewde had a message to similar effect to the parties to the peace agreement.
“Peace spoilers must be held accountable. Silence your guns completely, and let the internally displaced and the refugees safely return to their homes,” she said.
Another next-door head of state, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, thanked the peace signatories for agreeing to “a logic ending” of the conflict. The veteran politician pondered the high price South Sudan has paid because of years of fighting, and why the violence may have been sparked in the first place.
“You have lost a lot of development time. It is very dangerous to use identity in politics, as is the case with tribalism,” Mr. Museveni commented, adding that “no more blood over political arguments” would be a good future policy.
Showing every sign of having learnt the suggested lesson of his Ugandan peer, President Salva Kiir offered the South Sudanese people a veritable mea culpa, deeply regretting his part in the long-lasting suffering of the nation.
“As president, I want to apologize to all the parties of the conflict, and to the people of South Sudan, for our betrayal of the promise of our struggle for independence,”, he said. “Dr. Riek Machar and I, and everybody else who signed the peace agreement, have forgiven each other. To forgive is not an act of cowardice, it is a Christian obligation and inherently human."
Salva Kiir urged those in attendance to join him in “welcoming and congratulating Riek Machar and leaders of other opposition groups for coming here today”, and instructed the army and other security forces to immediately stop fighting and “let everybody move freely”.
The South Sudanese president hailed the revitalized peace agreement as a much better one than the accord reached in 2015. With a track record of having disappointed and angered part of the international community by failing to keep previous promises, Kiir acknowledged that some will doubt that peace, this time, has come to stay. He was, however, adamant that this shall be the case.
“We will prove sceptics wrong by sincerely implementing the agreement fully, in letter and spirit,” he said, adding:
“Prophets of doom, just waiting for a new outbreak [of violence] to happen, will have to make new prophecies.”