After five years of civil war, South Sudan's biggest danger may not be loaded guns but empty bellies.
Even as the government and rebels prepare to join forces to end a conflict that has claimed almost 400,000 lives, the threat of famine is stalking the country.
With local farming yet to recover, almost seven million people—more than half the population—could face severe food shortages between May and July, according to the United Nations.
The war "has prevented farmers from planting and harvesting season after season, and left people with few sources of income to alleviate deepening hunger," said Elysia Buchanan, a policy adviser at Oxfam International, the London-based charity.
"It has taken years to create this crisis, and will take even longer to reverse it."
Such grim forecasts show the stark challenges for South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar, whose initial plan to end a bitter rivalry and form an expanded government next month is facing delays.
The country hosts sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil reserves and swathes of fertile land, but ranks 187th out of 189 places on the UN's Human Development Index.
Talks on the latest peace deal began around mid-2018 and the guns have largely fallen silent in the oil-rich north.
Yet the Equatoria region that stretches from the capital Juba, to the Ugandan border—and was known as South Sudan's breadbasket for the grain, fruit and vegetables that helped feed the nation — has seen sporadic unrest.
"We have a couple of months of the dry season still to run, then there will be the rains and crops will need to grow before they can be harvested," the head of the UN mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, told reporters in Juba on March 27.
"We are looking towards the end of the year into September and October, before we see an alleviation of the food-security problem."
It is just the latest warning: Famine was announced in parts of the north in February 2017, the first such declaration anywhere in the world since Somalia was gripped by mass hunger in 2011.
Intensive aid efforts abated the outbreak, though it has threatened to resurface as lasting peace has remained elusive.
Signing a peace deal "doesn't mean food will fall from heaven and everything will be OK," said James Okuk, a politics professor at the University of Juba. Any transitional government will need at least two years before it can begin to tackle security, food and refugee issues, he said.
The World Food Programme is targeting about 5.4 million people with aid, "including life-saving food distributions to the most vulnerable," its acting director in South Sudan, Simon Cammelbeeck, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The Sudanese army's ousting of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir, who mediated between Dr Machar and President Kiir, has sparked concerns it could undermine their accord.
South Sudan's Foreign Ministry said Sudan's transitional military council has assured it that the deal will be respected.
Dr Machar has said he is not ready to return to Juba and wants to postpone the formation of a unity government until security issues are resolved.
He was meant to return to South Sudan in May and join a power-sharing government as vice president.
The deal is the latest effort to end the conflict that erupted due to a falling out between the two men in 2013. Observers, though, have been warning that implementation of the deal has stalled.
"We are saying extend the period for more months, say six," said Puot Kang Chol, representing Dr Machar's SPLM-IO rebel group at the National Pre-transitional Committee, the body charged with implementing the peace agreement.
Dr Machar "will not come to Juba without security arrangements," he said.
Dr Machar fled Juba in a hail of gunfire in 2016 after the collapse of a previous peace agreement saw his troops clash with President Kiir's.
He has requested the additional six months citing 17 major clauses in the agreement that have not been implemented.
Key among them is the number of states that will be used between the 32 that President Kiir created or the 10 that were in the failed 2015 peace agreement.
The Independent Boundary Committee submitted its final report to the Igad mediation team in March but it is yet to be made public.
According to James Oryema, Dr Machar’s representative in Kenya, other pending issues are power and resources to be devolved to the states, the security arrangement that required cantonment, training and creation of the national army, the demilitarisation of major towns, and deployment of special regional forces to protect returning opposition leaders.
“It would be against the spirit of the revitalised agreement to go ahead with the formation of the transitional government of national unity. We believe the folks in Juba would listen to the voice of reason and not go ahead with the formation,” said Mr Oryema.
Other concerns are the failure of the parties to implement the security arrangements: Screening, training and redeployment of unified forces.
The Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, as amended this year, has not been implemented and the government has failed to provide financial resources from the proceeds of oil as stipulated in Article 1.4.8 of the Agreement to facilitate its implementation.
There is a lack of confidence building and release of prisoners of war and political prisoners. The other issues are federalism, devolution of powers and resources through constitutional amendments.
Gichira Kibaara, who chairs the National Constitution Amendment Committee, said his committee submitted a Bill to amend the Constitution to incorporate the September 2018 Peace Agreement, to the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs on Jan. 23.
Augostino Njoroge, interim chairperson of Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission has also expressed concern that what has been achieved so far have fallen short of what was intended for the eight-month pre-transitional period.
In his address to the 5th plenary meeting in Juba last week, Gen Njoroge complained that continued denial of access by the government to the Monitoring and Verification Teams in the country has made it difficult to accurately assess the situation.
But James Morgan, the representative of South Sudan at the African Union, said that all the parties to the Agreement are ready to form a restructured transitional government.
Dr Cirino Hiteng, a former South Sudan assistant minister for foreign affairs and a member of the Former Detainees, told The EastAfrican that Dr Machar will hold his ground.
“There are going to be much more tough moments ahead because President Kiir and his group may go ahead to form a government with other political groups but Dr Machar's SPLM-IO is key, unless it splits again like in 2016 when Taban Deng defected to the government,” said Dr Cirino.
The recent visit to the Vatican by Dr Machar and President Kiir was seen as a major boost to the implementation when Pope Francis pleaded with the leaders to try overcome the challenges to the implementation and bring peace to the suffering people of South Sudan.
According to Duop Chak Wuol, the editor-in-chief of the South Sudan News Agency, the only difference between the Vatican visit and the past unsuccessful peace initiatives is the religious component but the critical question is whether President Kiir and Dr Machar will be driven by religious convictions or personal interests.
John Pen, a member of the civil society said that President Kiir is putting pressure on Dr Machar after the Vatican visit, but it might not work until security arrangements and states problem are settled.
The parties are yet to fully comply with cessation of hostilities chapter signed in December 2017, and Article 1.7 which requires that signatories to the agreement to ensure the departure of all non-South Sudanese armed groups from the country.
The 2015 broke down mainly because President Kiir refused to accept the provision for two armies and two commanders-in-chief, provision that was removed in the September 2018 agreement.
By Fred Oluoch, Bloomberg and Reuters.