South Sudan’s exiled opposition leader Riek Machar arrived in Juba on Saturday in a bid to salvage a peace deal with less than a month to go until he is to form a government with President Salva Kiir.
The foes, whose falling out in 2013 triggered a bloody civil war that has left almost 400,000 people dead and sparked a major humanitarian crisis, signed a peace deal in September last year that is meant to see them reunite once again in government.
The deadline for the formation of the revitalised Transitional government of National Unity (TGoNU) in which Machar will serve as first vice president, has already been delayed once and is now set for November 12.
However crucial technical steps contained within the agreement, such as creating a unified army and agreeing on the internal boundaries of states, have failed to make progress.
“The two will have a closed door meeting at the presidential palace today (Saturday),” a spokesman for Machar’s party the SPLM-IO, Manawa Peter Gatkuot, said after the rebel leader’s arrival.
Machar’s return to Juba, the second this year, came just as ministers from regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) met with President Kiir on Friday to urge him on to create conducive environment for opposition leaders to return.
The delegation said Kiir was handling the implementation of the security arrangements and the issue on the number of states as agreed in the September 2018 peace deal.
It was led by Ethiopian state minister of foreign affairs Hirut Zemene and Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba.
“We are encouraged that all leaders of the parties to the agreement have moved to bridge the hitherto wide trust deficit and have returned to Juba to continue building confidence ahead of the November 12 deadline of the pre-transition period,” Mr Namwamba told The EastAfrican.
“Kenya looks forward to the formation of the inclusive revitalised transitional government of national unity (R-TGONU) to work with all of us in the region, Africa and the world to return the Republic,” he added.
Ahead of the meeting on Saturday, James Morgan, South Sudan’s Ambassador to the African Union said Dr Machar would be allowed into the country with 300 soldiers from his group the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), but they will immediately be asked to stay at designated places known in the agreement as Cantonment Areas.
“This is to inform our people inside and outside the country, our friends and peace lovers in general that peace has finally come to our country,” said Mr Morgan adding that the latest development was due to Kiir’s “selfless efforts to restore peace.”
It was not immediately clear for how long Machar would stay in Juba after holding talks with President Kiir.
Machar and Kiir met in September in Juba, but failed to agree on the two issues of security and state boundaries.
When it won independence in 2011, the country was divided into 10 states but it has since been subdivided into 32, in what critics see as a gerrymandering of traditional boundaries by Kiir to shore up his power.
Machar is also seeking assurances about his personal security before permanently returning to Juba, which he fled under a hail of gunfire when a previous peace deal collapsed in July 2016.
Efforts to get warring parties to canton their troops with a view towards forming a unified army—a key part of the peace deal—have made little progress.
Observers warn that the only way forward in the absence of progress on such sticky issues, is for Machar and Kiir to strike a new political deal that will enable them to move forward with the formation of a power-sharing government.