South Sudan‘s President Salva Kiir has said he reached an agreement with opposition leader Riek Machar to form a unity government by a February deadline – even if not all their differences have been resolved by then.
The two rivals held rare talks in the capital, Juba, over the past three days to iron out outstanding disputes that prevented the establishment of a power-sharing government by a previous November 12 deadline, as stipulated in a September 2018 peace deal.
Last month, they were given another 100 days to honour the cornerstone of the agreement, raising fears that the country’s fragile truce could be at stake should they fail to do so once again.
“We said that after 100 days we must form the government of national unity. If the arrangements are not complete, we shall form a transitional government of national unity to implement the outstanding issues,” Kiir told reporters after the talks with Machar.
“The ceasefire will continue to hold and no one from us is willing to go back to war,” Kiir said.
Analysts welcomed the news but cautioned that past deadlines had been missed before – last month’s extension marked the second time the deadline was pushed back since last year’s deal that brought a pause to fighting in a conflict that has killed nearly 400,000 people, according to estimates.
“South Sudanese people are not holding their breath that this will work out this time around,”Jok Madut Jok, co-founder of the Sudd Institute, an independent think tank focusing on South Sudan, told Al Jazeera.
“But there is still hope. People are tired of the war and the consequences of the war including the collapse of the economy and the displacement of nearly half of the population,” Jok said.
Both sides blame each other for not meeting milestones stipulated by the peace deal, especially the integration of different fighting forces and disagreements over teritorial boundaries.
A key part of last year’s agreement was that fighters would be gathered in military camps, retrained and deployed as a new national army. But a lack of funding and distrust hampered efforts to build an 83,000-strong unified force amid suspicions over its make-up, control and command structure.
The drawing of state boundaries has also been a major stumbling block, with both sides disagreeing over the number of states, who should control them and where boundaries should lie. After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan had 10 states. But it has since been carved into 32 in what critics saw as gerrymandering of traditional boundaries by Kiir to reward loyalists, a move that angered his opponents.
“The intractable issues that prevented these two men from forming a transitional government of national unity include the division of the country by President Kiir into 32 states. The opposition is saying this is unconstitutional and must be rescinded,” Jok said.
According to Jok, the warring sides have agreed to revisit the issue of boundaries after the formation of the unity government. Juba is also considering the possibility of holding a referendum on the issue, Jok noted.
Tuesday’s developments came as Kiir and Machar face growing regional and international pressure to salvage the stalled peace process.
On Monday, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior South Sudanese officials, accusing them of perpetuating the conflict, and saying it was ready to impose other measures on anyone seeking to derail the peace process.
South Sudan plunged into war in 2013 after a falling-out between Kiir and Machar, the president’s former deputy who now lives in exile.
Successive peace deals and mediation bids have failed to achieve a lasting peace for the world’s youngest country.