South Sudan’s rival leaders form coalition government

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President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, swears in Dr. Riek Machar as the first Vice President of South Sudan, in Juba, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Atiki Lomodong )
President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, swears in Dr. Riek Machar as the first Vice President of South Sudan, in Juba, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
(AP Photo/Charles Atiki Lomodong )

South Sudan opened a new chapter in its fragile emergence from civil war Saturday as rival leaders formed a coalition government that many observers prayed would last this time around.

A day after President Salva Kiir dissolved the previous government, opposition leader Riek Machar was sworn in as his deputy, an arrangement that twice collapsed in fighting during the conflict that killed nearly 400,000 people.

The world’s youngest nation slid into civil war in 2013, two years after winning a long-fought independence from Sudan, as supporters of Kiir and Machar clashed. Numerous attempts at peace failed, including a deal that saw Machar return as vice president in 2016 — only to flee the country on foot months later amid fresh gunfire.

Exasperation by the United States, South Sudan’s largest aid donor, and others grew as Kiir and Machar in the past year pushed back two deadlines to take the crucial step of forming the coalition government. But with less than a week before the latest deadline Saturday, each made a key concession.

Kiir announced a “painful” decision on the politically sensitive issue of the number of states, and Machar agreed to have Kiir take responsibility for his security. On Thursday, they announced they had agreed to form a government meant to lead to elections in three years’ time — the first vote since independence.

Even as citizens breathed a careful sigh of relief, aid groups, analysts and diplomats warned of major challenges ahead. In a likely sign of caution, no heads of state aside from Sudan’s leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, attended the swearing-in.

“While much work remains to be done, this is an important milestone in the path to peace,” the U.S. Embassy said in a message of congratulations.

And observers have stressed that this new government must be inclusive in a country where fighting has often occurred along ethnic lines and where several armed groups operate. Not all have signed on to the peace deal.

Kiir and Machar have said outstanding issues will be negotiated under the new government.

Other vice presidents named by Kiir on Friday include Taban Deng Gai, a former ally of Machar who switched to the government side and last month was sanctioned by the U.S. over involvement in serious human rights abuses. Another is Rebecca Garang, the widow of John Garang, who led a long fight for independence from Sudan.

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