Catholic bishops in South Sudan call for reexamination of ‘flawed’ peace pact

The bishops claim the pact that ended the country’s 2013-2018 civil war has allowed political leaders to extend their power at the expense of ordinary people.

South Sudanese who fled fighting in Sudan gather in Malakal town, which is hosting thousands who returned, in Upper Nile state, South Sudan, May 8, 2023. More than 40,000 people, mostly South Sudanese, have crossed the border into South Sudan since Sudan erupted in conflict nearly one month ago, yet many are returning to areas unable to support them and still riddled by fighting. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Catholic bishops in South Sudan are calling for reexamination of the peace deal the country has implemented with international support for five years, warning that the pact is based on a flawed model that may never bring peace to the world’s newest nation.

The bishops claim the pact, which ended the 2013-2018 civil war in newly independent South Sudan by requiring the two sides to share power, failed to resolve the primary causes of the conflict and instead has allowed political leaders to extend their power at the expense of ordinary people.

“It is a flawed process and there will never be peace in South Sudan as long as the international community insists on this type of model,” the bishops, led by Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, the country’s capital city, said in a statement Friday (June 30). “We call upon all parties, as well as regional and international mediators, to examine anew, the method which truly benefits the people.”

The South Sudanese government and the rebel opposition signed the peace deal, known as the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, on Sept. 12, 2018, seven years after the largely Christian country gained independence from neighboring Sudan. 

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The bloody war had pitted forces loyal to President Salva Kiir Mayardit, from the Dinka ethnic community, against those aligned with the first vice president, Riek Machar Teny, a member of the Nuer ethnic community and the leader of the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition.

By the time it ended with the signing of the agreement and the formation of a government of national unity, thousands of people had died.

Since the pact was signed, however, violence has continued as the transitional government devised by the agreement struggles to implement its provisions, including integrating rival forces into one army, enacting a new constitution and laying the groundwork for a general election.

A planned polling period was originally set for February 2023 but was pushed to December 2024. In March, the country’s leaders recommitted to the agreement, but meanwhile the United Nations estimates that more than 8 million South Sudanese require food aid as a result of continued fighting and other disruptions. 

The bishops are concerned that the revitalized agreement focuses too much on the leaders of the key political parties and ignores the needs of ordinary citizens, according to the Rev. John Gbemboyo Joseph Mbikoyezu, the coordinator of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference.

“It is not addressing the concerns of ordinary people. There is nothing to show it wants to solve the problems of the communities,” Mbikoyezu told Religion News Service. 

Although the clerics want all parties to fully implement the agreement, they question whether the current model, which asks continually warring elites to think beyond their own power bases, is a sustainable mechanism for development, peace and justice.

“The current power-sharing government needs to demonstrate political will to bring about a just and peaceful dispensation in the country. Indeed, given the degree of trauma of major political actors, it’s unlikely that they have the capacity to do so, even if they wanted,” said the clerics.

The bishops’ position has drawn surprise from other Christian leaders involved in the peace process, but Francis Kuria Kagema, general secretary of the African Council of Religious Leaders and executive director of the Interreligious Council of Kenya, said he backed the bishops’ call for a new understanding.

“The transitional arrangement is kept in place by the blackmail of renewed widespread violence. That is why simmering conflicts are allowed,” Kagema told RNS. “The political and military leaders in Juba must not keep the transitional arrangement in perpetuity while conflict festers.”

Meanwhile, the bishops have condemned human rights abuses, including killings, looting and rape, and denial of access to essential services, including water, electricity and food, to civilian populations in the ongoing war in Sudan.

The bishops are also expressing a deep concern about the regional and international component of the war.

“The conflict is destabilizing the whole region, already (left) fragile and weakened by internal conflicts. We call upon the international community to prevail over Sudan’s warring parties to choose dialogue.”

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