ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The tweeted image shows the two longtime South Sudanese adversaries in a smiling group hug with Ethiopia’s young new prime minister, suggesting that peace could be coming to the world’s newest country after years of savage fighting.
Yet even though it was the first meeting in two years between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his bitter rival, Riek Machar, many doubt that the hug or subsequent talks will end one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.
Immediately after the Wednesday meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Machar’s party issued a communique expressing its opposition to the proposals in the high-level talks and requested “more time,” even as African leaders and envoys gathered at a summit Thursday to say that time is running out.
Tens of thousands of people have died in South Sudan since a civil war, initially between the forces of Machar and Kiir, broke out in 2013, just two years after the oil-rich region seceded from Sudan. An additional 4 million people have been displaced — producing one of Africa’s largest refugee crises — and the United Nations has said several regions of the country are on the brink of famine.
As the standoff persists, the international community is showing increasing skepticism about the willingness of the warring parties to move toward a reconciliation.
The summit Thursday of East African leaders and their Western partners, which took place in Kenya, was filled with grave warnings about the need for the warring parties to repair their many broken agreements and implement them before it is too late.
“Today there are signs of hope again,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who chaired the summit. “I am grateful we have Salva Kiir and Riek Machar with us. They are here because they realize what is at stake; they realize time is running out and they need to act now.”
He added that all partners “must speak with one voice and move in unison and encourage the parties in South Sudan to ensure and implement those commitments.”
In recent years, cease-fires have been broken practically before the ink on them has dried. And the East African leaders have been split over how to pressure the warring groups to end the violence.
After helping to create South Sudan and spending billions of dollars on development aid, the United States is now very critical of the country’s leadership and is trying to garner support for an arms embargo.
“We have lost patience with the status quo. We must change course if we are to save a generation of South Sudanese,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a recent opinion piece. “The leaders of South Sudan are responsible for protecting these children, and they have failed them. We have no more time to waste on empty promises.”
A peace agreement in 2015, also marked by smiles and handshakes between Kiir and Machar, dissolved into renewed fighting in July 2016, and Machar barely escaped the capital, Juba, with his life. He eventually ended up under house arrest in South Africa.
In the ensuing years, the conflict has metastasized, spreading beyond the ethnic battles between Machar’s Nuer and Kiir’s Dinka groups to other parts of the country and different factions.
In many cases, the fighting and accompanying atrocities against civilians are being carried out by small groups that these leaders only loosely control. Janardhan Rao, the South Sudan country director of the humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps, said the situation has deteriorated, with armed splinter groups committing crimes and destroying even the simplest development projects. He expressed a desperate hope that the talks could make a difference.
“In many ways, this is holding a lot of hope for us — two years of negotiations did not bear fruit because the two leaders did not meet,” he said. “Now it looks like the big push, and once that happens, the other things can start happening.”
In addition to declaring cease-fires, the talks have focused on setting up a power-sharing agreement, which so far has been rejected by the opposition as too beneficial to Kiir’s government.
The United States and the other partners in the mediation have been unable to agree on measures to pressure the participants in the talks, which are sponsored by the East African group of nations known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
“The African Union and IGAD have also recently ramped up threats of sanctions and punitive measures, but it is unlikely that these will be implemented,” noted a recent report by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. “Without decisive and far-reaching international enforcement measures, there is little hope for peace in South Sudan.”
It is unclear whether Ethiopia’s new attempt to get the main antagonists in the battle to talk directly to each other can push Kiir, who holds most of the cards, into some kind of deal.
Alan Boswell, an analyst on South Sudan, said part of the problem is that everyone is still working within the framework of the 2015 peace deal, which ultimately did not succeed.
“They might be able to get people to lay down the guns right now, but that doesn’t address the long-standing issues,” he said. “It’s underappreciated how much the collapse of the previous peace deal expanded the conflict and made it so much worse for the South Sudanese.”
He described the latest attempts to implement a peace framework as “chucking a Hail Mary with a nuclear bomb.” It is either a dangerous, desperate attempt that might work, he said, or “it will explode, and that’s what happened in 2016.”