JUBA, South Sudan — Rebel leader Riek Machar returned to this struggling five-year-old nation Tuesday under a peace deal and was promptly sworn in as first vice president, boosting hopes for an end to one of Africa’s deadliest civil conflicts.
A U.N. plane carried Machar from Ethiopia to this South Sudanese capital as part of a power-sharing plan aimed at quelling a war that has raged between Machar’s followers, mostly ethnic Nuer rebels, and ethnic Dinkas loyal to President Salva Kiir. The fighting has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced more than 2 million people, driven parts of South Sudan to the edge of famine and spilled over into neighboring countries.
But it remains unclear whether Machar’s new role will be enough to quiet the unrest fueled by ethnic and tribal rivalries. Another key challenge is rebuilding a shattered economy heavily dependent on oil exports at a time of slumping crude prices.
Under the peace accord reached in August, Kiir and Machar agreed to work together in a unity government and to hold elections within 30 months in the world’s newest nation. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
Smiling and wiping sweat from his brow at the airport, where government and rebel soldiers alike stood guard, Machar called Tuesday for immediate steps to end fighting, stabilize the economy, provide relief to war-affected people and launch a program of national reconciliation.
“I wish that the security situation will be stabilized in the shortest possible time now that we’re just about to form the transitional government of national unity,” Machar said later after being sworn in at the presidential palace.
Kiir said at the ceremony that he had “no doubt that [Machar’s] return to Juba today marked the end of the war and the return of peace and stability to the people of South Sudan.”
However, fighting continues in parts of the country. Rocket-propelled grenades fell Monday night on a U.N. base where more than 100,000 people have taken shelter from the war in the northern town of Bentiu, the United Nations said.
Many South Sudanese are skeptical about the peace deal because few of its provisions have been implemented in the past eight months. The government has not withdrawn its troops from Juba as agreed, and deliveries of humanitarian aid remain restricted in some areas.
In addition, the accord puts back in power the same two men whose falling out led to the outbreak of violence. Machar was previously Kiir’s deputy but was dismissed amid a power struggle in July 2013. He later fled the country and led rebel forces after fighting erupted in December that year.
Both sides have been accused of committing horrific human rights abuses, often along ethnic lines. According to the United Nations and human rights groups, soldiers forced people into starvation, gang-raped women and girls and shot civilians hiding in mosques and hospitals. Kiir and Machar themselves are accused of having command responsibility for some of the soldiers who committed such crimes.
“The war was vicious,” Machar told reporters in Juba. “We have lost a lot of people in it, and we need to bring our people together so that they can unite, reconcile, heal the wounds, the mental wounds that they have.”
A new government “buys some time . . . and that might be a small mercy insofar as at least thousands of people aren’t being slaughtered,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “But it certainly doesn’t move the country forward.”
While Kiir and Machar each spoke of reconciliation, neither mentioned accountability measures agreed to in the peace deal, including an African Union-led hybrid court to try high-level perpetrators for atrocities.
“Who is going to court? Who is supposed to be indicted?” asked Jacob Chol, dean of Juba University’s political science department. “It will be very hard for sitting leaders” to be put on trial, he added.
Kiir and Machar instead spoke at length Tuesday about economic recovery, appealing for international support for the transitional government. South Sudan’s government is nearly out of money after heavy war spending — $850 million, according to a U.N. estimate — and a steep drop in oil revenue. Economists warn of looming hyperinflation; the South Sudan pound has lost more than 80 percent of its value since the war began.
Finance Minister David Deng Athorbei said in an interview that the International Monetary Fund is prepared to help and that the government, which has been accused of rampant corruption, would be willing to enact financial reforms at the IMF’s request. But doubters abound.
“You can’t let the same people who [mismanaged the economy] implement the reforms,” said Peter Biar Ajak, a South Sudanese economist at the London-based International Growth Center.
Murphy reported from Washington. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.