In a gesture that shocked his guests, Pope Francis went down on his knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s warring leaders at the Vatican in April 2019. The pope then counseled President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, to put aside their differences and actively pursue the implementation of the national peace agreement that the two men had signed eight months before.
The South Sudanese people, Pope Francis said, were watching their leaders with an “ardent desire for justice, reconciliation, and peace.”
As Pope Francis visits South Sudan on February 4, almost four years later, the situation is still dire in many parts of the country. Despite President Kiir and reinstated Vice President Machar forming a government of national unity and merging their armies as stipulated in the peace agreement, peace remains elusive to the vast majority of South Sudanese. Communal violence between government forces, militia groups, and rebels continue to tear the country apart in the states of Warrap, Central Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, Upper Nile, and Jonglei.
Rebels who have not signed the peace agreement continue to wage war against the government in a conflict that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan says has seen all parties complicit in instigating attacks against civilians. In Upper Nile State alone, an uptick in violence at the end of last year displaced 20,000 people, prompting Kenyan President William Ruto to order an airlift of food assistance to the displaced. So far, talks to bridge differences and advance peace talks with the hold-out rebels have stalled.
Meanwhile, key stipulations in the agreement to address rampant corruption in the country and ensure transitional justice have yet to be implemented. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, South Sudan ranks as the world’s most corrupt country. This corruption causes government salaries to be delayed, dampening the morale of the civil service, including the military, and reducing their ability to deliver services and control the widespread violence.
Further, corruption has led to missed deadlines in implementing the peace agreement which is a major hurdle to realizing holistic peace. At their most basic, missed deadlines mean power-sharing arrangements are pushed back, creating unnecessary tension between all parties to the conflict and the absence of political authority to mitigate crises at the state level. At this moment, most predictions about South Sudan’s future paint a grim picture of war, displacement, and disease.
During his visit, the pope will talk about peace and reconciliation in the country. He will meet internally displaced people and preside over an ecumenical prayer. This visit offers an opportunity for South Sudanese politicians to act on the unimplemented sections of the agreement like the institutional reforms that are vital to combating corruption to ensure the effectiveness of government. As well, action needs to be taken on the transitional justice mechanisms in the agreement to unite the divided communities of South Sudan for the purposes of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.
More broadly, Pope Francis’ visit shines a global spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. The countries in the region that are guarantors of the peace agreement must use this visit as an opportunity to put pressure on politicians in Juba to implement the peace agreement in its entirety.
Recalling his encounter with the pope at the feet-kissing event at the Vatican in 2019, President Kiir told the South Sudanese Parliament, “I was shocked and trembled when His Holiness the Pope kissed our feet. It was a blessing and can be a curse if we play games with the lives of our people.”
The pope’s visit is the opportune time to remind South Sudan’s leaders of President Kiir’s words and the urgent task to break the curse that has been unfolding in the country.
Brian Adeba is Deputy Director of Policy at The Sentry.