JUBA - Talks to end 18 months of conflict in South Sudan that has displaced millions and brought the country's economy to its knees, are due to resume next week under a new format, a spokesman for President Salva Kiir said Friday.
Kiir's spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said when the talks resume on Monday, the number of negotiators at the table in Addis Ababa will be greatly reduced from previous rounds of peace talks mediated by regional bloc, IGAD.
Ateny said the government and rebel sides will each be represented at the talks by "two chief negotiators plus other two from each warring party," compared to 10 per side in earlier rounds.
He said the government expects that the new format for the talks will allow the negotiators to reach agreement more quickly.
Whatever the negotiating teams agree to will be presented to leaders from IGAD member states Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda at an extraordinary summit meeting on South Sudan, which is likely to be held on June 11 or 12, Ateny said.
E.J. Hogendoorn, the deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, said the upcoming round of talks could be the end of the road for the IGAD-led peace process.
"It's our assessment that this is kind of the 'last hurrah' for the IGAD-mediated peace talks on South Sudan," Hogendoorn told South Sudan in Focus.
He said that, as the IGAD-led talks "have lingered on for more than a year-and-a-half and have failed to achieve a durable agreement," other initiatives have sprung up to try to bring peace to South Sudan.
South Africa and Kenya have put forward peace plans for the world's youngest nation, and the African Union (A.U.) last week appointed former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare as its high representative for South Sudan, with a view to "strengthening the A.U.’s contribution towards ending the conflict in South Sudan."
Another stumbling block that IGAD faces as it tries to bring peace to South Sudan is differences among IGAD members over what a peace deal for South Sudan crisis should look like, Hogendoorn said.
"There are a lot of neighborhood interests and influence in South Sudan," he said, citing, in particular, a "rivalry for influence" in the nation between Sudan and Uganda.
"Uganda has firmly sided with the government, has deployed a lot of troops that have fought with the government," Hogendoorn said.
"Sudan has sided largely with (Riek Machar's) SPLM-in-Opposition. That rivalry for influence, both in the conflict and potentially afterwards, is making it very difficult for IGAD to come up with an agreement that all the facilitators can accept and that all the parties can be asked to adhere to," he said.
Another last chance
The IGAD-led peace process has been on hold since March, when the last round of talks ended without producing an agreement to end the fighting. Those talks were supposed to be the last chance for the warring sides in South Sudan to reach a peace deal. But the March 6 deadline to strike a deal came and went without any agreement being signed. Fighting in South Sudan has ground on relentlessly since then, and even gathered steam in parts of the country in recent weeks.
Ahead of this week's round of talks, both the government and rebels have said they want to reach lasting peace, but each side points to the other’s intransigence in previous negotiations to explain why that peace has remained elusive for 18 months.
As a result of the fighting, more than two million people have been displaced, 4.6 million are expected to go hungry in the next two months, and the oil-based economy is collapsing, with basic commodities hard to come by as inflation soars and country's currency crumbles against the dollar.
Meanwhile, fighting has raged on in the run-up to the talks. Both the rebel and government sides said the violence has spread to Western Equatoria state, and SPLM-in-Opposition spokesman James Gatdet Dak said in a statement Friday that the rebels have seized control of a major oilfield in Unity state, and were pushing on to Upper Nile to key capture key oil facilities there.