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Uncertainty as deadline for South Sudan unity government looms

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ALJAZEERA 16 FEB 2020

Ahead of February 22 milestone, hopes for breakthrough dampened amid disagreement over proposed ‘administrative areas’.

Rival leaders in war-torn South Sudan face a February 22 deadline to form a long-delayed government of national unity.

But just a few days before the milestone, hopes for a breakthrough dampened after Riek Machar, a former vice president and rebel leader, expressed his dissatisfaction with a peace proposal made by his rival, President Salva Kiir.

Announcing a “painful” compromise, Kiir on Saturday said the world’s youngest country would return to a system of 10 states from 32, a key opposition demand, plus the three “administrative areas” of Pibor, Ruweng and Abyei.

A contentious issue that has lingered for several years, the number of states is one of the main sticking points of a peace agreement that has faltered on several fronts.

While Machar said he appreciated Kiir’s decision to “revert to 10 states”, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the creation of the three administrative areas.

“The issue of the number of states is contentious because they are the political bases of the top politicians in South Sudan,” James Okuk, a lecture of politics at the University of Juba in the South Sudanese capital, told Al Jazeera.

In a statement calling Kiir to reconsider his decision, Machar said the establishment of the three areas “opens up another Pandora’s box” that defeated the purpose of reverting to 10 states.

“The refusal of Dr Riek Machar to accept the attached three administrative areas to the 10 states is a negotiating position from [his] SPLM/A-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition) – it is not rejection of 10 states,” Okuk said.

File photo shows South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir exchanging signed peace agreement documents in Addis Ababa
South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar (R) and President Salva Kiir failed to honour previous peace agreements [File: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

When it gained independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan had 10 states, as set out in its constitution.

Two years later, the country descended into war when Kiir accused his former deputy, Machar, of plotting a coup. The conflict has so far killed at least 380,000 people and forced millions from their homes, with nearly half the country in dire poverty.

In 2015, a fragile peace deal came under further pressure when Kiir increased the number of states from 10 to 28, and later 32 – before reverting on Saturday to 10 plus the three “administrative areas”.

Of the three areas, the oil-rich Ruweng in the north is thought to be the most contentious and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the war.

Oil provides almost all of the government’s revenue, making it one of the world’s most oil-dependent nations.

“During the war, both sides unilaterally formed their own states with new boundaries,” said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“The dispute over the configuration of states became a major impasse blocking the peace process from moving towards a unity government,” he added.

“Machar risks alienating the regional power brokers if he appears to be rejecting compromise,” he added.

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