ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Saying that “enough is enough,” South Sudan on Friday ruled out a government role for opposition leader Riek Machar, dousing hopes of a breakthrough in peace talks to end the country’s civil war.
The announcement came just a day and a half after Machar and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir met for the first time in two years and even staged an awkward three-way hug with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had organized the meeting.
The two are scheduled to meet again in a few days, however, as part of the internationally sponsored peace process.
“For the people of South Sudan, enough is enough,” acting foreign minister Martin Elia said at a news conference following peace talks in Addis Ababa attended by several African leaders. “If he wants to be president, he should wait for elections.”
He added that after talks, Machar “shall be relocated outside the region and not in any country near South Sudan.” While there would be a vice presidency in the transition government for a member of his opposition movement, Machar could not fill the seat, Elia added.
At the same time, Sudan announced that the two men would meet in three days for new talks in the capital, Khartoum. South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei confirmed the meeting even as he, too, blamed Machar for the country’s conflicts.
“The Khartoum summit was a decision of the [African] heads of state,” Makuei said. “We will abide by it.”
Machar’s opposition movement issued a statement condemning the remarks, particularly those from Makuei, who had echoed the “enough” comments. It said the remarks were damaging the process even as the talks were “at a high level of maturity.”
“This bad politics is from a known peace spoiler, and it is only intended to derail the peace process,” the opposition said in the statement. It called on the public to “dismiss these statements as those from anti-peace agents in the regime.”
The opposition reaffirmed its desire for peace while noting that “in light of the regime’s intransigence,” it reserves its “natural right for self-defense.”
The meeting between the longtime rivals Wednesday night had raised hopes for some kind of breakthrough in the peace process as the situation in South Sudan grows increasingly desperate.
The latest name-calling, however, suggested otherwise, even though the peace process, sponsored by a group of neighboring countries known as Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, will continue limping along.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, with Kiir and Machar sharing power. But civil war erupted in 2013 as the country fragmented on ethnic lines. A peace agreement in 2015 disintegrated after a few months into heavy fighting in the capital, Juba, and Machar barely escaped with his life.
Despite two years of talks to get the peace process back on track, fighting has spread throughout the country with a staggering toll. More than 4 million people have been displaced — half of them into neighboring countries — and the population is teetering on the edge of famine. Tens of thousands have died, and the use of rape by combatants against civilians is alarmingly widespread, according to aid groups.
Alan Boswell, a South Sudan analyst, said Juba’s announcement was not a total surprise, as it has often sought to sideline Machar.
“It’s more an indication that neither side has agreed to budge yet and accept IGAD’s proposal to try the 2015 deal all over again,” he said. “It will take a lot more than a hug and handshake to force them to change their mind about that.”
The United States, which was instrumental in South Sudan’s creation, also has been involved in the peace process but has been losing patience with the players and has called for targeted sanctions against individuals in the South Sudanese government. Boswell said this has bolstered the opposition even as its forces suffer reverses on the battlefield.
“Both sides believe time is on their side, which makes peace difficult. The opposition feels emboldened by what they see as the increasing isolation of Kiir’s regime,” he said. “Meanwhile, Kiir thinks he has the military momentum and has won the war.”
For those who found two days of public handshakes and a hug followed by an explicit rejection to be confusing, Makuei, the information minister, said that was just the South Sudanese way.
“You should understand that there is a difference between face-to-face talks and between greeting one another,” he told journalists. “Politically, we don’t want Riek Machar, but he is a South Sudanese, so socially we interact with him.”