Former rebel leader Riek Machar was sworn in as South Sudan’s first vice president on Saturday as part of a unity government with his former adversary President Salva Kiir, a tentative step towards peace after years of civil war ravaged the oil-rich yet impoverished nation.
Kiir expressed optimism at the ceremony, despite huge challenges: former fighters have still not been integrated into a single security force, more than half of South Sudan’s citizens depend on food aid, and extreme corruption is rampant.
Kiir and Machar had twice pushed back deadlines to form a government of national unity after signing a peace accord in 2018. The civil war killed 400,000 people and triggered Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Fighting was characterised by ethnic cleansing and extreme sexual violence on all sides.
On Saturday, officials promised those times were over. Machar looked dapper in a suit and red tie as he stood next to his wife Angelina Teny and took the oath of office in front of Kiir. Afterwards, Machar shook Kiir’s hand, smiled and hugged the president.
“This action signifies the end to the war,” Kiir told the gathering of dignitaries and journalists. “Peace has come and it has come to stay … My brother Dr. Machar and I are now partners in the peace agreement.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into fighting two years later when forces loyal to Kiir and Machar clashed in the capital, sparking the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Juba from Machar’s Nuer ethnic group and a spiral of brutal ethnic violence and revenge killings.
“I want to assure you (the people of South Sudan) that we will work collectively to end your long suffering,” Machar said at the ceremony.
It was unclear until Thursday, when the two men issued a statement, whether the unity government would even be formed this week. Benchmarks laid out in the peace agreement have not been met, with the government blaming a shortage of funds for being unable to disarm, retrain and integrate former combatants.
Three other vice presidents ranking below Machar were also sworn in at Saturday’s ceremony. The cabinet was dissolved on Friday but new appointments were not announced.
Forming the unity government is a significant step, Peter Martell, who wrote a history of South Sudan, told Reuters.
“But creating peace is more than just about forming a government. The country has been wrecked by civil war, enormous challenges still remain,” he said.
The army still needs to be unified and militia groups who did not sign the peace deal reigned in, Martell added.
The return of refugees and economic reforms are also critical to lasting peace, said James Okuk, a senior researcher at the Juba-based Center for Strategic and Policy Studies.
“Every citizen is expecting that this should be a serious government,” he said.
South Sudan is almost entirely dependent on oil for revenues, but its wealth has been squandered and its facilities damaged. Output currently stands at 180,000 barrels per day, down from a peak of 250,000 bpd before the outbreak of the conflict in 2013.