It’s unlikely warring parties in South Sudan will beat a February 22 deadline by when the formation of a transitional government of national unity is expected after the country’s main opposition group said it would not participate in the exercise unless the UN deployed its forces.

Speaking in Juba, the capital, mid-January, Angelina Teny, head of the influential defense committee within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), said a compromise to have the UN deploy its forces in the world’s youngest state was a pre-condition for the party to participate in forming a government.

“The SPLM-IO has said we will form the government on February 22 and we did put forward the proposal to enable the formation of that government,” Teny told reporters in Juba, adding that “on the critical issues of security, we came up with a compromise. We need to sit down and look at the deployment of troops in some areas until such a time that we can deliver the unified forces for the delivery of the security services.”

“This is a very big compromise for us. For us, we see it like risk-taking because already, we see that the government has shown reluctance in the implementation of security arrangements and unification of forces,” said Teny who is also the wife of Dr Reik Machar, the de facto leader of the SPLM-IO and a former Vice-President of the country.

The party led by Machar, a former first Vice President, is demanding to have 4,000 troops deployed to “sensitive areas” of the country ostensibly as a surety against the routine implosion of civil war.

Already 7,000 non-combat UN troops under the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are in South Sudan, but are only stationed in Juba.

However, the current peace deal signed on September 12, 2018, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, known as the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) does not contain a clause incorporating a protection force, a phenomenon that may make the proposal of the opposition untenable.

An earlier agreement signed in August 2015, but which floundered, had provisions for regional countries to deploy 4,000 troops which were to be known as the Regional Protection Forces or RPF.

Turns out, South Sudan is the world’s newest country, gaining independence in 2011 after a decades-long civil war. Yet the euphoria of that moment was short-lived, ending in December 2013 when an internal political dispute between South Sudanese President Kiir and his then vice president Machar exploded into a lengthy ethnic conflict.

The spark for the 2013 conflict lay in Machar’s alleged plans to challenge Salva Kiir as leader of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Kiir subsequently sacked Machar and his supporters from the cabinet.

According to Ashley Quarcoo, an international development practitioner and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign-policy think tank based in the US, the scourge of negative ethnicity weighs’ heavily on the on-going internecine bloodletting.

“Longstanding ethnic divisions within South Sudan’s security forces led to the easy fragmentation of the military on each side of this political dispute. Those from the Dinka ethnic group supported Kiir, and those from the Nuer ethnic group joined Machar. The conflict spread quickly, and ethnically motivated violence between the Dinka and the Nuer engulfed large parts of the country” she says.

Coincidentally, the Dinka people form with 35.8% of the country’s 8 million population form the largest ethnic bloc in South Sudan while the Nuer are the second largest group representing 15.6% in a country with approximately 60 disparate tribal groups.

In August 2015, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc made up of eight countries in the volatile region, brokered the first peace effort, the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. But the deal immediately ran into obstacles from both sides, particularly after Kiir issued a unilateral decree, increasing the number of states from ten, as laid out in the peace agreement, to 28 and then 32.

Understandingly the opposition faction led by Machar objected to Kiir’s decision to increase the number of states, saying it violated the peace agreement. On January 31, 2016, IGAD issued a communiqué calling on the parties to the peace agreement to suspend implementation of the 28 states system and formed an inclusive commission to review it.

South Sudanese civil society groups also raised objections in a joint letter, noting the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan had referred to 10 states and did not authorize the president to create new states or dissolve existing ones.

While the international community also criticized the President’s decision, though the response was both mild and delayed. In January 2016, the Troika drawing in, the US, the UK, and Norway released a joint statement expressing concern about delays in forming the Transitional Government of National Unity and observing that the 28 states decision had “created an obstacle to consensus.

A report by the country’s Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC), a 14-member body created under the R-ARCSS, showed few Sudanese favored the stance taken by the government, for the increase of number of states is widely seen as subtle strategy of Balkanizing the state in favor of the Dinka.

Another sticking point involves the merger of the militarizes into one national army.

Intermittent peace deals have routinely collapsed due to hardline stances taken by the warring parties, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and over four million displaced from their homes, according to the UN in the past seven years.

Ahead of the February 22 deadline, Teny also has rebuked the mediators under the umbrella of IGAD for suggesting discussions on the number of states be continued well into the transitional government, for at least 90 days more.

“To us, they are automatically proposing an extension of the pre-transitional period. We felt that we want to make that clear so that we are not misunderstood,” she said, referring to the proposal announced mid this January after attending the IGAD-led consultative forum in Juba.

“The legislative assembly cannot be formed without having the issue of the number of states.” SPLM-IO has instead proposed for a committee made of representatives from African countries in the Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC), known as the C5 and members of the three main donors countries known as the Troika -Norway, UK and US- to deliberate on the issues within two weeks.

One of the key issues is how main installations like the airport, roads, delivery of humanitarian assistance and safeguarding of attacks on civilians and officials will be assured during the transitional period. SPLM-IO presumes soldiers from all sides will be in non-combat positions as they train for a merger into a professional army.

Whether the warring parties will reach a compromise before February 22 remains a major conundrum.

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