Fresh fighting in South Sudan and reports of the collapse of the Igad-led talks in Addis Ababa are dimming hopes of a resolution to the conflict now in its third month.
Fighting was reported to have spread farther north in the Upper Nile State, and five soldiers were killed in fighting between army men over delayed salaries at a barracks in Juba on Wednesday.
Igad special envoys on Monday said there was not much progress being made at the Addis Ababa talks, and rescheduled the discussions for March 20.
They said the recess would allow the parties to reflect and consult on guiding documents for the process, as well as provide an opportunity ensure the views of civil society are reflected in the Declaration of Principles.
Meanwhile, Igad has presented a framework and modalities to the two parties, which include an interim government.
The next round of talks are supposed to be all-inclusive and members of the civil society, women and youth organisations, other political parties are expected to participate.
The EastAfrican has learnt that the imminent collapse of the Addis Ababa talks prompted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s recent visit to Juba.
Officials privy to details of the visit said President Kenyatta went to “tone down” South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, who is said to want the country’s military intervention and is also concerned about Kenya’s decision to allow seven former detainees to travel to Ethiopia for the Addis talks, contrary an earlier agreement.
The agreement between South Sudan and Kenya was that the seven would be released to Nairobi for an extended detention, but were to be returned if Juba wanted them.
On Wednesday, South Sudan peace mediator and special envoy of Igad Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin said Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Rwanda had shown interest in contributing forces for the regional peacekeepers proposed to be deployed in South Sudan.
Igad plans to present its proposal for approval to the heads of state of its member countries, and then to the UN Peace and Security Council and the African Union.
Kenya seems caught in the middle. On one hand, President Kiir wants President Kenyatta to intervene militarily. But Kenya is the guarantor of the 2005 Sudanese peace deal and cannot be seen to be taking sides.
To help ease anxiety in Juba, President Kenyatta is reported to have proposed to increase Kenyan troops within the United Nations Peace keeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) by 310 soldiers. This would bring the Kenyan forces in UNMISS to 1,000. But the decision would need the Kenya parliament’s approval.
There is growing suspicion in Juba that Khartoum is keen on making a deal with President Kiir’s opponent, former vice president Riek Machar, to secure oil resources in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity states as a counter measure to Uganda’s direct support to President Kiir.
South Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army spokesperson Col Philip Aguer said Igad rushed the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement on January 23, without first putting mechanisms for monitoring in place.
He said only the constant diplomatic pressure from President Kenyatta has kept the negotiations ongoing.
“Igad has a lot of experience in conflict situations, from the civil war in Sudan and Somalia, to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. We are wondering why they have not made progress in the way they ought to have. What are they lacking?” asked Col Aguer.
Igad officials said they have been resisting pressure from Juba to influence the contents and the direction of the negotiations.
However, they admitted that the regional agency lacked the requisite human and logistical resources to deploy monitors to South Sudan. But they said their assessors had since delivered a report on the position of the forces, which would be used to negotiate a ceasefire.
Additional reporting by Andualem Sisay