South Sudan starts anxious 100-day countdown to transitional government

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (2nd R) and opposition leader Riek Machar (2nd L) shake hands after talks on South Sudan's proposed unity government with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni (R) and President of Sudan's Transitional Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (not in picture) at State House in Entebbe, on November 7, 2019. (Photo by Michael O'HAGAN / AFP)

The countdown to 100 days for South Sudan’s anticipated Transitional Government of National Unity is set to start this Tuesday, with key focus being on the two main political protagonists—President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

The two are expected to resolve a raft of issues that have, for yet another time, prevented the formation of the transitional government.

Top on the agenda is the issue of security for political leaders, establishment of a functioning barracks for soldiers, merger and training of the army from the splinter armed groups as well as addressing the contentious issue of the number of states in the country and their boundaries.

President Kiir and Dr Machar agreed at a Thursday meeting in Uganda to delay the planned Government of National Unity by three months from November 12, providing relief and hope that the violence that has plagued the country will subside.

Machar had asked for a six-month extension, but will now have to work within the compromise timeline.

“The meeting noted the incomplete critical tasks related to the security arrangements and governance, including the formation of the revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity,” stated a communique released after the Uganda State House meeting in Entebbe.

It added that a monitoring review report will be filed after 50 days. The deal, which has angered the United States, was seen as a lesser evil after civil society groups warned South Sudan could relapse into war if some parties refused to join the transitional government.

The US Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy on Thursday warned that the US could impose restrictions on leaders unless they urgently work out a formula for a transitional government.

“We must review our relationship with the government in light of the delay. The US is considering all possible options to put pressure on those individuals who would impede peace and promote conflict,” he said in a statement.

“This inability to meet their own deadline calls into question their suitability to continue to lead the nation’s peace process,” he added.

A planned Council of Ministers meeting for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), the regional bloc that has been midwifing the peace deal in South Sudan, is expected to set benchmarks for the 100-day extension.

The meeting held in Entebbe was arranged by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Sudan’s head of the Transitional Sovereign Council Abdulfattah Abdulrahman as the guarantors of the South Sudan peace.

But the deal came as the main peace guarantors Sudan and Uganda offered to provide security in the interim to ensure parties stick to the new timelines to sort out their differences.

The meeting was also attended by Kenya’s special envoy to South Sudan, Kalonzo Musyoka. It means that the South Sudanese leaders must now urgently address the four key issues.

It also means that President Kiir and Machar and several other splinter groups that signed the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan must set tight timelines to fall within the period, or risk being judged to be anti-peace efforts.

Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), the grouping of splinter groups in the agreement, political detainees and other parties had said they won’t join unless those very issues were addressed. And mediators were worried those who won’t join could take up arms again.

Igad ministers were expected in Addis Ababa on Sunday to formally approve the delay, for the second time this year. They were also expected to determine the status of Machar in the interim.

The former VP had once been under house arrest in South Africa before he was allowed free movement. He now stays in exile in Sudan and has often declined to join the unity government citing lack of assurances on his security.

President Kiir and Machar’s choice for the 100 days, based on a proposal from the South Sudan Civil Society Forum, will be divided into two, with the parties reporting implementation status by the first 50 days.

The revitalised agreement provided for similar mechanisms for monitoring, giving eight months initially from September 12, 2018 to address the issues. The deadline was missed, forcing Igad to extend to November 12.

This time, however, the peace guarantors in South Sudan—Uganda and Sudan—pledged to provide interim security for parties as well as act as a buffer between soldiers belonging to different parties.

On Thursday, Machar’s side said they would accept the delay, but must now be told what will happen in the 100 days.

“An extension of the period, at least, guarantees that there won’t be war. We will see how to go about it because an extension alone is not enough,” said James Oryema, Machar’s aide, after the Uganda communique was issued.

The peace agreement, dubbed “revitalised” because it attempted to include most players in the South Sudan conflict, provided for the creation of a technical boundary committee with experts from Igad, US, UK and Norway.

The Committee was to “define and demarcate the tribal areas of South Sudan as they stood on January 1 1956,” when South Sudan was then a part of the Sudan.

In 2011, when South Sudan gained Independence, it had 10 states each ran by a governor appointed by the President.

President Kiir raised the number to 32, during the war, with opposition groups claiming he had carved out areas opposed to him and focused on those with mineral and oil resources.

With boundaries seen as a hot issue, the committee’s work, meant to initially last 60 days from September last year, was to feed into the Independent Boundaries Commission which would, in 90 days, issue a declaration on the actual number of states of boundaries needed.

If they failed in their allocated period, then South Sudan would go into a referendum to determine the number of states.

Both the Committee and the Commission failed to work and Dr Machar and other opposition groups claimed President Kiir was sitting on the money meant to facilitate the teams.

The work of the committee and other pre-transitional teams required at least $100 million and the UN Security Council has urged President Kiir to release the money.