South Sudan Talks Hit a Deadlock Over States and Boundaries

South Sudan President Salva Kiir, right, shakes hands with opposition leader Riek Machar during a meeting at State House Entebbe, Uganda on November 7, 2019.

The government of Juba has thrown a spanner in the works by proposing that the contested number of states--one of the impediments to the formation of transitional government--be increased to 40 or even 55, throwing away everything put on the table so far. The negotiations are now deadlocked.

The just ended two-day meeting chaired by the South African vice-president, David Mabuza and attended by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development special envoy to South Sudan, Ismail Wais, had hoped to resolve and finalise the issue of the states and boundaries over the next 10 days.

Three options were tabled during deliberations: The government proposed the continuation of the status quo of 32 states, Dr Riek Machar's SPLM-IO tabled a reversal to the original 10 (colonial era) states, while the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOP) led by Dr Lam Akol tabled 23 states.

The deliberations took a day-and-a-half without any solution and compromise. But on Thursday evening the facilitators pressured the parties to compromise and offer a solution.

When asked to state their position, the government delegation asked that the SPLM-IO side be the first one to compromise.

SPLM-IO said it will move upwards from the 10 states but also suggested that the government moves downwards from 32 states.

But the government side said it could only move upwards to 40 or even 55 states.

Questioned on the rationale, the government side did not give substantive answers only talking of a "false narrative" of taking towns to people without reference to boundaries, governance structure and their economic feasibility.

The SPLM-IO delegation said its rationale for sticking to 10 states was based on the agreement and that the country is facing eminent economic collapse and does not need more states. More importantly, the 10 States have clearly marked boundaries, meaning conflict over land ownership is unlikely, it added.

By 6pm, without a solution in sight, the facilitators struck a balance by reconciling the two positions of 10 and 32 to make 42 states, then divided by two to get the average of 21 states.

The SSOP agreed but said they would add another two to make 23 states.

The SPLM-IO agreed with the formula and accepted 21 states.

But the government stuck with their original 32, and was only willing to move upward up to 55 states, resulting in a stalemate.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group says that the 32-state configuration is a source of great aggravation to Dr Machar and many of his fighters. Rebel hardliners view it as surrender for Dr Machar to join a unity government so long as that configuration remains in place.

"Dr Machar has also said in private that he is not wedded to a specific number of states so long as he is not forced to accept the status quo," notes the report.

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