Entebbe, Uganda | AFP -Michael O’HAGAN | South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have been given another 100 days to form a power-sharing government after failing to resolve differences over a peace deal.
The two leaders, whose fall out in 2013 sparked a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead, were given the extension after a rare face-to-face meeting held with regional heavyweights in Uganda.
It is the second time the deadline has been pushed back since the rivals signed a truce last September that brought a pause to fighting.
Both sides had agreed to join forces in a coalition government by November 12. But with the date looming and key issues far from resolved, regional leaders brokered high-level mediations in Entebbe to chart a way forward.
“It was really impossible to have them reach agreement in five days. We’ve given them three months and we will continue our engagement,” Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa told AFP following the closed-door discussions at State House in Entebbe.
The meeting “agreed to extend the pre-transitional period… and to review progress after fifty days from that date”, Kutesa said after the meeting, reading from an official communique.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads neighbouring Sudan’s sovereign council, and Kalonzo Musyoka, a special envoy from Kenya, were among top delegates at the regional gathering.
The peace deal has largely stopped the fighting that erupted just two years after South Sudan achieved independence, violence that left nearly 400,000 dead and displaced close to four million people.
Observers had warned pushing the foes to form a unity government before disagreements over security and state boundaries were resolved threatened to plunge the country back into war.
– Deadly rivalry –
Machar, who lives in exile in Khartoum and cannot travel freely in the region, had asked for more time so that the impasse over security and territory arrangements could be overcome.
The rebel leader warned that if these were not addressed, the country would see a repeat of fighting in 2016, when an earlier peace deal collapsed, worsening the conflict.
Machar, a former deputy to Kiir, fled South Sudan on foot under a hail of gunfire, and has only returned home on rare occasions, fearing for his safety.
Kiir had said he was ready to form a new government and had threatened to do it alone.
The US, Britain and Norway — the troika that leads policy towards South Sudan — had warned Thursday that “any unilateral action is against the agreement and the spirit of the peace process”.
The creation of the coalition government, a key pillar of a September 2018 peace deal between the rivals, had already been delayed once in May when regional leaders brokered a 6-month extension.
Some in the international community feared another extension risked the already tenuous peace accord derailing entirely. Pressure was being brought on Kiir, Machar and the other rebel signatories to respect the deadline.
– International pressure –
The United States in particular has warned it would reevaluate its relationship with South Sudan if a unity government isn’t forged on November 12, and has floated sanctions.
But the International Crisis Group warned pushing the November 12 deadline at all costs risked this fragile truce.
“External actors could imperil these gains if they push the parties into a unity government that then falls apart or permit Kiir to exclude Machar,” the think tank wrote in a report this week.
The United Nations Security Council, on the eve of the Entebbe meeting, declared that fully implementing “all provisions of the peace agreement remains the only path that will set the country towards the goal of peace, stability and development”.
A cornerstone of the accord was that fighters from all sides would be gathered into military camps and trained as a unified army — a process dogged by delays and lack of funding.
Little progress has been made on negotiations around state boundaries — another major sticking point.
The European Union, in a statement Thursday before the extension was announced, urged the warring parties to demonstrate “genuine will to build peace” and set realistic deadlines for resolving outstanding issues.