South Sudan’s rival parties began two days of talks in Addis Ababa on Thursday in a bid to salvage a peace deal, with just days left before a unity government is meant to be formed.
President Salva Kiir, rebel leader Riek Machar and a handful of other groups inked the peace deal in September 2018, the latest in a string of efforts to end a devastating conflict now in its sixth year.
But the parties have failed to resolve several crunch issues before a power-sharing government is to be installed on May 12.
Representatives of the parties gathered in Addis for a meeting called by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional bloc for East Africa, holding prayers before going into a closed session.
Government has insisted the meeting focus on how to push forward with the formation of the unity government.
Machar’s camp, though, wants a six-month delay to resolve security and other issues that, it says, prevent him from making his return.
“There are key issues not implemented according to the matrix of the revitalized peace agreement,” Kang Pal Chol, a senior member of Machar’s SPLM-IO party, told journalists at the start of the meeting.
“We’ve proposed a timeline that for these key issues to be implemented, we need this six months for us to achieve the unfinished business.”
“We expect the meeting to come out with the solution as the 12th of May is approaching. We expect the leaders of South Sudan will come to their senses and agree on what will move the country forward.”
South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei, told journalists that “if the government wasn’t ready for the May 12 deadline, we wouldn’t have come here.”
Machar is living in exile in Khartoum, having been hounded out of Juba in a hail of gunfire in 2016 when a prior deal collapsed.
He is supposed to return as first vice president under the new deal.
Observers say that crucial steps envisioned in the deal such as establishing a unified army and discussing security control of the capital have yet to take place.
The other key issue yet to be addressed is the contentious matter of internal boundaries.
When it won independence from Sudan in 2011, the country was divided into 10 states.
But it has since been subdivided into 32, in what many critics see as a gerrymandering of traditional boundaries by Kiir to shore up his power.
Chol insisted his party wants the issue resolved before the new government is formed.
Lack of political will
South Sudan’s war broke out two years after independence, after Kiir accused his Machar, his former vice president, of plotting a coup against him.
Battles between members of Machar’s Nuer community and Kiir’s Dinka people were characterised by brutal violence on both sides, rape and UN warnings about “ethnic cleansing”.
An August 2015 peace deal collapsed almost a year after it was signed and the conflict spread, drawing in more groups around the country.
The fighting has killed around 380,000 people and forced more than four million South Sudanese — almost a third of the population — to flee their homes.
While the latest peace deal largely stopped fighting, violence has continued in some regions with rebel groups who did not sign up to it.
A reported issued on Tuesday by a UN expert panel warned that patience was wearing thin.
“Commanders, fighters and civilians… have yet to see the benefits of the bargains struck by their leaders,” it said.
The report pointed to government resistance to provisions in the deal for warring parties to canton their troops, demilitarise civilian areas, collect certain types of heavy weapons and reveal the size and location of their forces.
The latest peace deal was also largely pushed by longtime Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
His ouster has raised fears there is no-one in the region who has the will or influence to get the South Sudanese to implement the accord.