South Sudanese arch-foes signed a final power-sharing deal on Sunday, aimed at ending a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions in the world’s youngest country.
President Salva Kiir and his bitter rival Riek Machar were in neighbouring Sudan to sign the deal, under which the rebel leader is set to return to a unity government as the first of five vice presidents, an AFP correspondent there reported.
The deal, which paves the way to a final peace accord, was signed in the presence of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his counterparts from Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, along with foreign diplomats.
Once a final peace deal is signed, the foes will have three months to form a transitional government which will then hold power for three years.
The talks come as part of a regional push aimed at achieving peace in South Sudan, which plunged into a devastating conflict just two years after its independence from Sudan.
South Sudan’s nearly five-year conflict began after Kiir accused his then-vice president Machar of plotting a coup against him in 2013.
Kiir and Machar’s factions have already agreed on a permanent ceasefire and withdrawing of their forces from civilian areas, in talks mediated by Khartoum in series of dialogues hosted by Bashir.
The power-sharing deal lays out a plan for a 35-minister transitional government including 20 Kiir allies and nine backers of Machar, along with representatives of other rebel factions.
Washington has been sceptical about the success of the latest peace initiative, given the fiery enmity between Kiir and Machar.
Last month the White House warned that “a narrow agreement between elites” would not solve the problems plaguing South Sudan.”
“In fact, such an agreement may sow the seeds of another cycle of conflict,” it said.
But on Sunday the top US envoy to Khartoum said the United States still backed the process.
“We are supporting any initiative to bring peace to South Sudan and we hope this process will continue comprehensively,” US Charge D’affaires in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis, told reporters after Sunday’s deal was signed.
A similar peace deal was signed in 2015 but fell apart a year later in a deadly battle that saw Machar flee into exile.
Kiir vowed Friday that the latest peace bid will “not collapse”.
But he highlighted several challenges going forward, especially in accommodating a bloated government.
“They need security, they need vehicles, they need houses… five vice presidents, this is a very big responsibility to manage,” he said.
“I need to get for them their transport, and one person needs a motorcade of maybe five vehicles. Where will I get this?”
“There are so many things need to be done,” he added.
South Sudan’s war dashed the optimism that accompanied independence from Sudan in 2011.
The new country plunged into civil war, including fighting within the national army, fuelled by the deep enmity between Kiir and Machar.
The war has killed tens of thousands, displaced some four million people and left the oil-rich country’s economy in ruins.
With the country’s agricultural sector severely disrupted, seven million South Sudanese — more than half of the population — will need food aid in 2018, the United Nations says.