President Salva Kiir returned on Wednesday from talks on South Sudan’s future to organised crowds calling him a hero, as diplomats warned time was short to strike a deal for peace.
Kiir and his long-term rival Riek Machar, whose fallout in 2013 sparked a bloody civil war, face a February 22 deadline to form a government.
The pair have already missed two previous deadlines to enshrine a peace to end a six-year-old conflict that has left 380 000 people dead and millions in dire poverty.
The latest meeting of Kiir and Machar in Ethiopia ended in deadlock over the number of regional states – a contentious issue, as the borders will determine the divisions of power in the young country.
“With few days remaining until a power sharing government is due to form, time has almost run out,” a joint statement from Britain, the United States and Norway read, urging “political compromise.”
“A credible unity government needs to be inclusive… and cannot be formed on the basis of unilateral action.”
Despite the warning about dwindling time, Kiir on Wednesday appeared upbeat, waving back to several hundred supporters, some of whom were transported to the airport on organised buses.
“Our hero of peace,” one banner held by supporters read.
“We are supporting him to stand firm, and not to accept anything imposed on him,” said Kiir supporter Alfonse Kenyi. “We can solve our problems alone.”
Kiir spoke briefly to the flag-waving crowd before roaring off in a motorcade.
“We fought a very difficult fight, and whenever the battle is tough, you have to retreat so as to gain more momentum,” Kiir said, grinning and waving to the crowd.
“We have come back so as to make a consultation with the people.”
It is not clear what those consultations will entail, and some diplomats fear Kiir may push ahead with deciding the number of states on his own.
Without a deal, further delay may be an option, but an eight-nation East African bloc of nations, IGAD, warned on Saturday that any extension was “neither desirable nor feasible.”
Violence in the war has reduced since Kiir and Machar signed a deal in September 2018, and diplomats warned that keeping that peace is critical.
“Respect of the ceasefire by all parties remains paramount,” envoys from the European Union, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Switzerland, said in a joint statement.
Kiir and Machar met on Sunday on the sidelines of a summit of the 55-nation African Union in Addis Ababa.
Their meeting included Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, who is current chair of IGAD, which has taken the lead in South Sudan peace negotiations.
South Sudan has been left in ruins by the war, and among the crowd at the airport were those pleading for their leaders to strike a deal.
“The people of South Sudan have suffered,” said James Lasu Yeshua, from Morobo, south of the capital.
“We are begging these two people to give them peace.”