South Sudan’s warring parties have reached a tentative agreement to revert to 10 states, paving the way for creation of a transitional government of national unity.
In an overnight about-turn, President Salva Kiir stood down from his stance of 32 states, saying he was compromising for the sake of the country’s peace.
A document released by the presidency in Juba on Saturday indicated that Kiir, his First Vice President Taban Deng Gai and Vice President James Wani Igga, who represented the incumbent government, agreed to go back to the original 10 states South Sudan had at independence.
They also added three administrative regions, which they argued could be addressed during the transitional government expected to be formed with opposition leader Riek Machar.
These regions include Abyei, whose border demarcation with Sudan is still a matter of discussion, Ruweng and Greater Pibor Areas, usually seen as oil-rich.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the opposition SPLM-IO, which campaigned for 10 states, would agree to two more special administrative regions.
James Oryema, who represents the SPLM-IO in Kenya, said there was no justification to add the two, saying all parties were comfortable with Abyei because of the issue with Sudan.
“We accept [and welcome] the agreement [decision] to go back to 10 states. But the small problem is why they added two special areas. They weren’t an issue in our negotiations. They need not be special because they are within the original states,” he said on phone.
President Kiir, who had gathered the governors of 32 states in Juba on Thursday and insisted there will be no reduction, instead said he was compromising and that those who would be affected would be helped during the transition.
“We recognised that this decision may not have been the best option for our people but for the sake of peace and unity in the country, the presidency sees it as necessary,” Kiir said.
“This decision was reached by the presidency after weighing several options and we thought this compromise will preserved the unity of the country and move the people of South Sudan out of this imposed senseless conflict, which has affected the livelihood for many of our citizens.”
The issue of the number of states had become a threat to the creation of the government of national unity, whose deadline was February 22.
Regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has midwifed the peace deal, had warned there won’t be further extensions as it was not “desirable” and had given Kiir up to Saturday 15 to present a compromise proposal.
At the meetings in Juba, the sessions were largely conducted in Arabic and key donors known as Troika: UK, US and Norway were not represented.
But it is thought that pressure from partners contributed to loosening Kiir’s tough stance where he had repeatedly refused to reduce the administrative regions.
A meeting of President Kiir’s officials and 32 State governors in Juba on Thursday had recommended that South Sudan maintains the current number, as well as an additional special region of Abyei.
But the outcome of the consultative meeting, where all 32 regional chiefs met with Information minister Michael Makuei Lueth and voted for status quo, meant further possibility that the opposition group would drift apart from Kiir’s position.
Commenting on the matter, Edmund Yakani the Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, applauded Kiir for making the tough decision, saying it was a relief for the people.
The civil society activist, who was threatened by security agents on Saturday for calling on peace parties to compromise on the states’ dispute, called on the national parliament to immediately revert the previous national budget focusing on 32 states to 10 states.
“Politically, parliament should raise a motion of reverting the national budget … it doesn’t make [for] a big process that will take time,” he said.
“You just amalgamate … whatever reads by then for the plate of Central Equateria, you can bring it back …. whatever that reads for Upper Nile and Jonglei, you can bring them back to those states and it doesn’t cost them anytime and loss.”
Opposition group, SPLM-IO, rejected the invitation for the meeting in Juba with governors, saying it was improper and at that the venue was inappropriate.
During the consultative meeting, representatives of South Sudanese Opposition Alliance and Former Detainees, other main signatories to the peace deal walked out of the session.
They did not immediately speak about their reasons but they had argued in the past on the need to return to the original 10 states the country had at independence.
Later, the SPLM-IO said it would generally accept the offer.
“In general, we welcome the decision made by the president. We didn’t win the case. It’s a win-win case and South Sudan as a country is the one that won the game because the President decided to take the country back to the right track,” said Manawa Peter Gatkuoch, Deputy Director for Information at the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO)
“[It is now up to] President Kiir and Dr Machar to discuss and agree on the formation of the unity government in a meeting scheduled for next week. The people of South Sudan should [be in] jubilation as today’s decision by the President,” he added.
When South Sudan gained Independence from Sudan in 2011, it had 10 states.
In 2015, during peace talks in Ethiopia, the SPLM-IO proposed 21 federal states, based on the old districts created by the British colonial administration. The government strongly opposed this move.
And in August 2015, the parties signed the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (A-ARCSS), which acknowledged the initial 10 states.
However, in a surprise move in October 2015, President Kiir issued a decree creating 28 states, saying it was a popular demand by the people.
He said it was meant to devolve power rather than centralise governance in Juba, a move that was condemned as unconstitutional by political parties, civil society organisations and members of the international community. The SPLM-IO termed it unilateral.
Gradually, the states increased to the current 32.
President Kiir has previously dared those calling for withdrawal of the decree to go to the states and tell the communities to return to the 10 pre-Independence states.