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South Sudan VP Machar’s ex-deputy joins rival as infighting grows

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South Sudan’s First Vice President Riek Machar takes the oath of office at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Samir Bol

South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar’s movement suffered a fresh blow Thursday as his deputy quit to join a rival military faction, following deadly clashes between the two sides.

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At least 32 people were reported dead when violence broke out on Saturday, just days after Machar’s foes in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) said they had ousted him as party leader and head of its armed forces.

The infighting has raised fears for South Sudan’s fragile peace process.

The East African bloc IGAD warned this week that the splintering of the SPLM/A-IO “is beyond an intra-party crisis and bears significant immediate and long-term implications” for the world’s youngest nation.

On Thursday, Henry Odwar, the movement’s deputy chairman and South Sudan’s former mining minister, announced that following his resignation from the government a day earlier, he was switching loyalties to General Simon Gatwech Dual, who has led the push to oust Machar.

In a signed document seen by AFP, Odwar accused Machar of sidelining other members in a bid to “single-handedly” direct the party’s affairs and said the new faction hoped “to steer the movement and chart (a) more democratic and people’s centered path.”

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The two men, who did not share a close personal relationship despite years working together, were reportedly at loggerheads for some time.

Odwar’s decision to walk away will likely weaken Machar’s influence in the Equatoria region, his former deputy’s base.

Analysts say the bickering leaves Machar in an increasingly precarious position as he attempts to work alongside his former foe President Salva Kiir to implement a peace process which is already behind schedule.

‘A weak partner’
The 2018 agreement ended South Sudan’s five-year civil war between forces loyal to Machar and Kiir that cost almost 400,000 lives, as the two men hammered out a power-sharing deal.

But the latest fighting within Machar’s movement diminishes his negotiating power and in doing so, threatens the peace process, said James Okuk, a South Sudanese policy analyst.

“By splitting itself… (the SPLM/A-IO) becomes a weak partner and a weak partner is not good in the implementation of the peace agreement,” Okuk told AFP.

“This will give President Kiir an upper hand now to be in control of politics in the country.”

Nicholas Haysom, the head of the UN mission in South Sudan, on Thursday joined calls by IGAD and Kiir’s office this week to halt the violence.

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He urged the “factions, and indeed all signatory parties to work together to overcome their differences peacefully.”

The warring parties have announced a temporary ceasefire for now, with each blaming the other for launching the early-morning attacks Saturday on rival forces in Upper Nile State which borders Sudan.

South Sudan has struggled with war, famine and chronic political and economic crisis since celebrating its hard-fought independence from Sudan in July 2011.

Since he signed the power-sharing deal with Kiir, the 68-year-old Machar has faced growing opposition within his own ranks, with top cadres complaining they had lost out to the ruling party.

Machar has said the recent squabbles are aimed at derailing the formation of a unified armed forces command, a key component of the peace deal.

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