ADDIS ABABA: The United States envoy to South Sudan urged the government of President Salva Kiir to start political reforms, saying the governance issues that led to armed conflict must be resolved for the country to achieve lasting peace.
The warning came as rebel leader Riek Machar said the government’s threat to charge him with treason was an attempt to scuttle peace talks, and called on Kiir to resign after weeks of fighting in the country.
“I am not aware of why we should face those charges for an alleged coup that never happened,” Machar told Reuters in an interview in his bush hideout in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. “[It] is another attempt to stop peace talks.”
“It would be best for Kiir to resign. We are due for elections in 2015. Before the elections, there would be an interim government,” Machar said.
The world’s newest country needs to “establish frameworks and principles for creating more democratic institutions,” U.S. envoy Donald Booth said Friday.
“The questions that called for more meaningful institutions, governance, social structure, organization of political parties in South Sudan should be addressed,” he said in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where 34 African leaders attended a summit of the African Union. “The fundamental questions should be embodied in the constitution of the country.”
South Sudan’s constitution gives the president extensive powers, and Kiir has been accused by his main political rival of governing like a dictator.
Last year, amid a power struggle within the ruling party, Kiir sacked his deputy, the entire Cabinet, as well as the ruling party’s secretary-general – dismissals that escalated tensions in a country with a history of divided military loyalties.
More than 700,000 people have been displaced by violence since Dec. 15, when presidential guards splintered and fought along ethnic lines in the capital, Juba. Accused of plotting a failed coup, former Vice President Machar went into hiding and declared himself the leader of renegade troops seeking to topple Kiir’s government.
The United Nations says both sides have committed gross violations of human rights during the conflict, in which entire army battalions defected to the rebels made up of mainly Nuer fighters loyal to Machar. Government troops are mainly from the president’s Dinka tribe.
African mediators last week got both sides to sign a cease-fire deal. But there is still no mechanism to monitor that truce and both sides have traded blame over sporadic violations.
Machar denies there was a coup plot but admits his goal is to remove Kiir, who has sought the help of Uganda’s military to quell the rebellion.
Ugandan soldiers fought alongside government troops as they retook towns previously held by rebel forces, and Machar has said Ugandan military support to Kiir as well as the detention of his allies are obstacles to a peace deal.
Seven pro-Machar political leaders who had been detained by Kiir have been released to Kenya. But four Machar allies remain in jail in South Sudan over alleged treason.
The second round of talks is expected to start Feb. 7, after mediators travel to South Sudan to try to put in place a mechanism to monitor the cease-fire agreement.