ROME – In a significant move in South Sudan’s peace process, the country’s main opposition group Friday announced their adherence to a 2018 peace deal that until recently they had opposed.

From Nov. 9-13, military representatives from South Sudan’s government and the South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance (SSOMA) met in Rome for a “workshop” organized by the Sant’Egidio community to negotiate terms and technicalities, and at the end of the meetings, SSOMA announced their decision to adhere to the peace deal.

Sant’Egidio is a Rome-based Catholic lay movement famous for its international peace efforts, playing a key role in negotiating the peace in Mozambique’s civil war and hosting talks to try and end other conflicts in the region.

A coalition of nine political parties and armed groups, SSOMA opposed the government of President Salva Kiir. It formed in February 2018 and seven months later, acceded to a revised peace deal with the government that also included the main rebel faction, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition.

However, not all members of the coalition were in favor of the agreement, and it has since split into two groups: One in favor of the deal, and one against it. Members who met in Rome over the past week were those who until as late as April opposed the accord.

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South Sudan’s conflict erupted shortly after it gained independence in 2011. Just two years later, Kiir ousted Machar in December 2013, accusing him of attempting to lead a coup to overthrow the government.

What began as a political dispute quickly turned into an ethnic conflict, with South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – to which the leaders belong – targeting one another as violence broke out.

So far, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed in the violence and millions more displaced amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Kiir and Machar, a former vice president of South Sudan, agreed to a ceasefire in 2015, which eventually collapsed. They reached a new agreement in September 2018, but have twice extended the deadline for its implementation over disagreements on technicalities, such as the number of states the country will have and how to handle security.

Pope Francis, who has closely followed South Sudan’s peace process, last year said he would visit troubled country if they were able to end the country’s nearly 7-year conflict. A trip seemed possible for 2020, however, the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those plans.

In April 2019, the pontiff invited both the South Sudanese president and the opposition leader to a retreat at the Vatican, where he made headlines by kissing their feet while pleading for peace.

In February, South Sudanese leaders took a giant step toward making the papal visit a reality when Kiir swore in Machar as the country’s “first vice president” (the constitution calls for five vice-presidents), effectively sealing the 2018 peace agreement.

However, opposition groups rejecting the peace deal such as SSOMA have been a loose end, and Friday’s announcement that they have chosen to adhere marks a significant step in implementing the peace process.

They will formally join the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSAMVM), which monitors compliance to the agreement by signatories and armed groups, as of Jan. 1, 2021.

Speaking at a Nov. 13 press conference on the Sant’Egidio workshop, Ismail Wais, Ambassador for the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements (IGAD), said the implementation of the agreement “is proceeding well,” particularly when it comes to ending hostilities.

Insisting that no one should be left out of the discussion, Wais praised SSOMA’s decision to adhere to the peace deal and urged all South Sudanese to “join hands for the betterment” of their country.

There will be one more meeting with political leaders to iron out the details before SSOMA’s formal entry into CTSAMVM in January.

“We hope this discussion, which will focus on root causes of issues in South Sudan, will lead to success and that the people of South Sudan will enjoy” the benefits of peace, Wais said.

General Samuel Lado, SSOMA’s representative at the meeting, said the workshop was “a great opportunity for the South Sudanese to come down from Africa to Europe searching for peace.”

Noting that SSOMA thus far has been “a little bit far for some time from the agreement and from CTSAMVM,” Lado said the workshop was “very successful” and “oriented us, the newcomers, and educated us, about CTSAMVM and its mandate,” in terms of structures, work models, verification and reporting.

“We look forward to finalizing the remaining details,” he said.

General Hamid Mohamed Dafaalla, vice president of CTSAMVM, said the aim of the workshop was to make the different parties increasingly aware of their responsibilities in terms of the peace deal, and how to handle these responsibilities.

He said there was “a very good experience of cooperation between parties” during the workshop, which he said, “can be a good indicator for the other parties for the political process.”

General Emmanuel Rabi, a representative from the government, also weighed in, saying all participants in the workshop “have benefitted a lot.”

“I’m optimistic that what we have concluded today will really create a conducive environment for the next meeting, which our political leaders are going to discuss substantive issues,” he said.

Paolo Impagliazzo, secretary general of Sant’Egidio, said the inclusion of SSOMA in the ceasefire is of “fundamental importance.”

Despite complications due to the coronavirus, Impagliazzo said all participants in the workshop, while observing sanitary and social distancing requirements, were able to discuss in a “spirit of collaboration and trust, which allowed these important results to be achieved.”

“It’s very important for us to keep the momentum,” he said, noting that since last October, the ceasefire has largely held, apart from two “minor incidents.”

One of the most important things for Sant’Egidio, he said, is “to silence the guns” and to make sure they stay silent.

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