The Undocumented Handshake: Is Peace at Home?

JHR media trainer Juma John Stephen delivering a Workshop in South Sudan

Trainers blog, by Juma John Stephen

Political events have been developing at an unprecedented speed in the Horn of Africa in recent months. First there was Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) leader Raila Odinga’s peace handshake this year, which was followed by a handshake between President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s during Uganda’s Marty’s Day celebration at the Namugongo martyrs shrine in early June.

Shortly thereafter the much anticipated but unexpected handshake between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Dr. Riek Machar on the 20th of June during a face-to-face meeting – happened.

Unlike the Kenyan and Ugandan examples, however, the handshake between President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar did not take place at home. It took place in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. The many photos which streamed in from Addis also did not show an actual hand-shake between the political rivals, instead it showed Dr. Machar hugging the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in close proximity to President Salva Kiir.

Of course, it is possible that President Kiir and Dr. Machar did actually greet each other by shaking hands, but none of the camera people there were able to capture the moment.

This is what we have settled for.

Even though the build-up to the face-to-face meeting of President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar in Addis Ababa, was not expected to bring peace, the fact the Kenyan handshake brought calm to that country and that similar results occurred in Uganda increased expectation that the meeting between the two parties will also have a calming effect in South Sudan.

Now, are these handshakes just for the sake of shaking hands or for peace?

For most South Sudanese the peace-talks have become meaningless considering the number of times leaders have failed to reach an agreement. This time though, it seems different, because the talks involved a face-to-face meeting and the hand-shake which demonstrates a level of brotherhood and a desire to bring actual peace to the people of South Sudan.

No matter how small, these handshakes represent hope for thousands of people living in refugee camps in the region, including hundreds more who have been internally displaced in camps across the country including those who have lost their loved ones and livelihoods. The handshake is a sign of hope for many who have had to endure economic hardships, levels of insecurity affecting everyone including women and children who are routinely raped and left homeless.

Will the handshake bring an end to all this suffering?

The UN Security Council voted to renew sanctions on South Sudan in early June, putting a deadline to peace on the 30th of July.

The renewed sanction will include travel bans and asset freezes for some leaders, including the vociferous government spokesperson Michael Makuei.

The renewal of sanctions seems to have had a positive impact on the peace talks which have been moving at lightning speed since the renewed sanctions were announced. It appears as if all the parties from the region including the main protagonists are committed to achieve a lasting peace agreement before the new sanctions are enforced.

The impact of the new UN Sanctions has been palpable.  The US Dollar exchange rate to the pound dropped from 32 hundred pounds to 24.  There are also reports that soldiers are returning to their barrack in other parts of the country like Yei Rover State.

On social media, South Sudanese are optimistic. Many of them are excited as they see pictures of the former political foes sitting together namely Dr Riek Machar’s wife, Angelina Teny sitting with Government spokesperson Michael Makuei, talking, smiling and laughing.

To many South Sudanese the handshake spells an end to rampant human rights abuses by the warring parties and the beginning of the quest for justice.

In my experience as a journalist and trainer in South Sudan, the days to find out who killed the journalists in South Sudan, ware near. There are more than 10 journalists Killed in South Sudan including Peter Moi Julius on the 19th August 2015, Adam Juma on 25th January 2015and United States Freelance journalist Christopher Allan on the 26th August 2017 among others.

The killing of these journalists have not be investigated, no arrests were made and justice has not yet prevailed. When a journalists Isaiah Abraham was killed on 05th December 2012, the government carried out an investigation and even the US FBI were brought to investigate and up to now the results of those investigations were not made public. But with the handshake, these human rights violations will be resolved.

Journalists in media houses since the killing of some of their colleagues have reframe from covering political stories, investigative stories and even fear asking the hard questions on accountability to government officials with the fear of been singled out and killed. But with the handshake, will make things much better.

The quest for justice is just beginning with the handshake. The Human Rights Commission in South Sudan has been documenting all forms of violations and abuses, the UN Human Rights experts calling for perpetrators to be brought before the law. These sounds distance but it coming closer and once the peace is signed all shall go down the road for justice.

There are signs which indicate that peace is not only at the corner but that perhaps this time, peace is already at home.

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