Reik Machar with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni.
By Benon Herbert Oluka
The former mediator between the Uganda government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Betty Bigombe, has run into the first hurdle in her new assignment to reconcile the warring parties in South Sudan.
President Museveni recently appointed Bigombe, 64, as his technical advisor on the South Sudan Peace Initiative. Bigombe’s last public office was that of senior director for fragility, conflict, and violence at the World Bank.
In her new role, Bigombe sent a letter dated June 15 to Dr Riek Machar, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Army in Opposition (SPLM/A) (IO), inviting him or his representative to attend “a consultation meeting” in Entebbe on Saturday, June 16.
“H.E Gen Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the President of the Republic of Uganda, has been asked by his counterpart H.E Salva Kiir Mayardiit of the Republic of South Sudan to mediate between the different factions of the SPLM/A,” she wrote. “This is part of the confidence building initiatives and measures aimed at reviving the SPLM/A reconciliation and also reviving the sustainable implementation of the Addis Ababa peace agreements. This is kindly to invite you to attend this peace building meeting.”
Bigombe added that should Machar “not be in a position to personally attend,” he should send his representative(s).
Machar responded to Bigombe the next day, saying he is unable to attend the meeting due to the short notice of the invitation, but also revealing for the first time that he is under house arrest in South Africa.
“I cannot travel because I am still under house confinement and detention,” he wrote. “It may take President Museveni to intercede with President [Jacob] Zuma [of South Africa] and other IGAD leader to let me free to travel. Such intervention would definitely take time; that makes it impossible for me to attend the meeting of tomorrow 16 June 2017.”
Machar has been under house arrest at a residence in the South African capital Pretoria since December 2016, with his movement restricted and monitored and controlled, according to reports in South Africa.
In his two-page letter, Machar also expressed surprise that South Sudan President Salva Kiir had asked President Museveni to mediate between the different factions of SPLA-M “rather than making use of the good offices of President Museveni to initiate a political process to end the raging war.”
“We believe that the search for a durable and sustainable peace is now the critical priority rather than reconciliation between the factions of the SPLM-A or implementing a collapsed agreement,” Machar wrote.
Machar’s letter is copied only to President Museveni’s principal private secretary. The Chairman of the SPLM/A (IO) reminded Bigombe that during a meeting in Khartoum [the capital of Sudan] on October 11, 2016 with President Museveni, they agreed on three points of action.
These were: review of security arrangements, power sharing arrangement and a permanent constitution-making process that would culminate in South Sudan holding elections. These, according to Machar, were the roadmap for restoring peace and ending war.
“I wonder why now reconciliation takes priority to ending the war,” he wrote.
However, in his conclusion, Machar offers a window of opportunity for Uganda’s mediation efforts to bear fruit, but through peace talks aimed at ending the war in the world’s youngest nation.
“We are hoping that your government will consider supporting a new political process for peace talks to peacefully resolve the conflict in South Sudan,” he concludes. “We seize this opportunity to reiterate our commitment to peace in South Sudan.”
Efforts to speak to Bigombe or Machar’s representatives were futile. However, a source who is abreast of the latest developments intimated to The Observer that following the Machar snub, the government resolved to resume subsequent talks in July, after further engagements with Machar’s camp.
South Sudan has been in intermittent war since December 2013, when fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to President Kiir and his then deputy Machar.
The fighting has led to one of the biggest influxes of refugees out the country, with many of them fleeing to Uganda. The refugee crisis will be a major topic of discussion at a two-day solidarity summit in Kampala starting June 22.