South Sudan's President Salva Kiir left, and opposition leader Riek Machar, right, shake hands after meetings on Oct. 20.
FILE - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir left, and opposition leader Riek Machar, right, shake hands after meetings Oct. 20, 2019.

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - With a Feb. 22 deadline fast approaching for South Sudan’s rival leaders to form a unity government, there is still no agreement on how many states the country will have or their boundaries.

The chief mediator in talks aimed at ending the stalemate chaired a six-hour consultative meeting on the matter Wednesday, but there was no breakthrough.

FILE - Henry Odwar, who is now the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) deputy chairman, poses for a photograph in Juba, Oct. 10, 2012.

Henry Odwar, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) deputy chairman, told reporters late Wednesday it was “disheartening” that the parties “hit another brick wall.”

Information Minister Michael Makuei, one of the government’s representatives on the National Pre-Transitional Committee, said despite the parties’ failure to resolve all outstanding issues, the Kiir administration is not prepared to extend the pretransitional period yet again.

“We are saying there is no more extension. We are saying on the 21st of February, which will be the last day of 100 days, the government will be declared, and they will take oath on the 22nd. And if they don’t take part, that will be the time we will respond, not now,” Makuei told VOA’s “South Sudan in Focus” program.

Arbitration proposed

Last month, a regional committee proposed that the parties move ahead with forming a unity government by the deadline, and leave it to an arbitration committee to later resolve the long-standing dispute over the number of states and their boundaries. President Salva Kiir unilaterally increased the number of states twice from the original 10 states to the current 32.

Early on, the government accepted the arbitration proposal. But Wednesday, Makuei said the Kiir administration proposed instead that the issue be resolved in a referendum vote, after the unity government is formed this month.

FILE - Michael Makuei, South Sudanese information minister, attends a press conference in Addis Ababa, Jan. 5, 2014.

“Arbitration is a court whose decision is final and binding and not subject to appeals,” Makuei told VOA. “So, it is even stronger than the ordinary court. So, as a government, we object to the arbitration process, and we said let us stick to the provision of the agreement.”

For its part, the SPLM-IO said it welcomes arbitration to resolve the dispute. But Odwar said the arbitration committee would have to settle the number of states and boundaries issue before the parties form a unity government.

He said if the stalemate over the number of states is not resolved and security arrangements are not completed before the deadline, the SPLM-IO will not be part of any new government.

“Together with the security arrangements, these are the barest minimum. Without these issues being resolved, we in the opposition, I-O, we will not come into government. I repeat — if by the 22nd as Makuei said established a government of national unity, we will not be part of it,” Odwar told VOA.

African Union

The chief mediator at the talks, South Africa’s Deputy President David Mabuza, said his committee is referring the matter to an African Union summit scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this weekend, but acknowledges that’s not a lot of time.

“Our feeling is that it is too short a time. If we want to do a thorough job, probably we need to consult further. We must consult IGAD. We must consult the C5. We must consult the AU. Fortunately, they have a summit this weekend. We are going to table the proposal here, and beyond that, we come back and give then the feedback,” Mabuza told South Sudan in Focus.  

The C5 refers to the five countries that are the guarantors to the revitalized peace agreement — Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

Sudan and South Sudan

Kiir and SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar were expected to meet on the sidelines of an African Union summit this weekend to further discuss the matter. Makuei said he is not sure that is going to happen.

“The president will only be going for the meeting of IGAD and the general assembly of the AU. He is not going to meet anybody. He has been meeting all the leaders of the opposition here,” Makuei said.

IGAD is the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a trade bloc.

Kiir and Machar have held several face-to-face meetings in Juba since the deadline to form a unity government was postponed by 100 days. But they have always come up short on reaching a deal.

EU warning

Under the terms of the existing agreement, the parties have a little more than two weeks to complete security arrangements and resolve the states and boundaries issue in order to form a unity government by the deadline.

Last week, the European Union warned the body will soon be compelled to review its policies toward dealing with the parties to the agreement should they fail to work out their differences.

In a tweet earlier this week, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, warned the government and other parties, “We can no longer stand by at the indescribable cruelty of the violence that belligerents continue to inflict on a population that has suffered far too much for too long.”

He said more sanctions could be coming against those who block the peace process.

A 5½-year conflict in South Sudan was sparked by a power struggle between Kiir and Machar. According to the U.N., the conflict killed hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese and forced millions to flee their homes.