Kiir, Machar, and the question of religious diplomacy

Pope Francis poses with South Sudanese leaders President Salva Kiir Mayardit (center-left), SPLM-IO leader Dr. Riek Machar (center-right) at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence. Photo: AFP

By Duop Chak Wuol

April 12, 2019 (SSNA) — On April 11, 2019, Pope Francis did what I viewed as a rather astonishing move. His decision to kiss the feet of President Salva Kiir, SPLM-IO leader Dr. Riek Machar, current First Vice President Taban Deng and Mama Rebecca Garang de Mabior was undeniably dramatic—in fact, it was surprising given the fact that some of these leaders contributed immensely to the suffering of the people of South Sudan. In this article, I argue that the “spiritual retreat” that has recently been concluded between Kiir, Machar, and other South Sudanese leaders at the Vatican is a plausible thing to do and that the young nation’s leaders must be serious about bringing an end to the civil war this time.

As someone who always writes critical articles against the government, I decided to respect this event, religious diplomacy, to give our leaders some time to see if they are ready for peace. I was moved to see the Pope kissing the feet of South Sudanese leaders. This is what led me to give Kiir and Machar some space to think and work to fulfill their commitment to peace. I will resume my regular writings at the time of my choosing. The goal of this piece is simply to urge Kiir and Machar to be true to themselves and appeal to their sense of spiritual principles so that peace can be realized.

Before it was launched, the retreat was widely viewed in South Sudan as a virtuous strategy to help find a solution to the conflict. Dialogue is a good technique used extensively by human beings. This practice is as old as humanity itself. But it does not always translate into the intended goal. What His Holiness Pope Francis did is indisputably a good gesture to show to President Kiir and rebel leader Dr. Machar through religious perspectives that sometimes it takes knowledge, forgiveness, understanding, commitment, and conviction to find a sense of peace. It is worth mentioning that diplomacy has many dimensions, including the political, social, religious, economic, and other social domains. Remember this dialogue is religious — it is also one of the best methods, if not the best, to use to resolve conflicts around the world.

In his address to South Sudanese political and religious leaders, the Pope welcomed South Sudan’s leaders and reminded them that the purpose of the retreat is for them to unite together, reflect on their lives, and to recognize their shared responsibility for the present and future of the South Sudanese. Pope Francis’s message was loud and clear: he wanted South Sudanese leaders to fulfill the meaning of the spiritual retreat, meaning, that they must remove themselves from their past actions that contributed to the destruction of the country. I would also like to remind our leaders that the Pope’s speech also asked them to cease hostilities and respect the September 2018 peace agreement so that the ongoing political and tribal division will be overcome. In addition, Pope Francis reminded South Sudan’s leaders that leaders made mistakes and that it is good to repent so that they can be forgiven. For lasting peace to come to our nation, President Kiir and rebel leader Dr. Machar must step back from their “usual environment,” as the Pope indicated. The two men must also remember that Pope Francis told them during his speech that ‘God is watching’.

Can religious diplomacy bring peace to South Sudan?

There is clearly no conclusive answer to this question. Nevertheless, there is hope that Pope Francis’s attempt could deliver a good result for the people of South Sudan. The Pope is known as a peace-maker who champions the poor and burdened societies. His sense of wanting to end the suffering of the South Sudanese resonates with his mentality. The people of South Sudan are tired of war and hope this spiritual retreat might be the answer. I realized after reading the speech of Pope Francis that the political game that Machar and Kiir have been playing could come to an end unless the two men are not faithful to their words.

However, a careful analysis of past and current peace-related events also shows that the retreat could simply end up as part of previous unsuccessful deals. All past failed agreements and the recent spiritual summit at the Vatican have only one difference, and this difference is the religious component. Kiir and Machar are known Christians. But the critical question here is whether the two men will be driven by their religious convictions or other hidden interests. It is just not clear now if these leaders who have been fighting against each other for more than five years are ready this time.

Spiritual diplomacy, like any other form of diplomacy, is very important, especially in places like South Sudan where political leaders resort to violent means to stay in power or gain illicit access to national coffers. Regional and international diplomacies have already been tried and to no avail. These channels were used through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), African Union (AU), Troika countries (the United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom), and the United Nations, but all failed. There is also the undeniable fact that the collapse of the August 2015 peace agreement in July 2016 happened because the government was not serious about peace. One can only hope that the Vatican-hosted religious retreat will not be used as a cover by some South Sudanese leaders to commit even more crimes or to further prolong the destruction of the country.

President Kiir must be serious about peace this time. He should do this by permanently ordering his forces not to launch an attack against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), allocate enough money for peace implementation, revoke the 32 states presidential decree and return the country to the original 10 states, reunify the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) and SPLA-IO forces for retraining as stipulated in September 2018 agreement, allow the peace monitors unlimited access to conduct their work, and consent to the formation of a hybrid court to try those who have been implicated in the war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kiir should also reach out to the National Salvation Front (NAS) to show that he is committed to peace in the country. This is the time for Kiir and Machar to reflect on the destruction of the nation and the nearly 400,000 South Sudanese who lost their lives merely because of an act of political immaturity. President Kiir must be serious because using a religious figure to further advance the same mindset would be a colossal mistake—perhaps a disgraceful one.

Duop Chak Wuol is an analyst and editor-in-chief of the South Sudan News Agency ( He can be reached at [email protected]. Note: The views expressed in this article are his and should not be attributed to the South Sudan News Agency.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Lilly Basoronga
    April 13, 2019 4:38 am

    Dear Duop,
    Thank you very much for the well articulated message to our leaders and South Sudanese. We hope Kiir and his followers will value and respect this spiritual guidance by Pope to bring everlasting peace to the people of South Sudan. We South Sudanese are yearning for peace and unity in our country. Enough is enough.

    Thank you Duop.


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