Expectations were low after more than a year of catastrophic conflict in South Sudan and many failed peace deals, but even so, some analysts and activists say they are disappointed at how little this weekend’s talks achieved.
On 1 February, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar signed a document in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on “Areas of Agreement” for a future transitional government of national unity, after a power struggle between the two men tore the newly born South Sudan apart. They recommitted themselves to an existing, frequently violated cessation of hostilities, and promised to sign a permanent ceasefire, but only after a final agreement was reached.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body that has led - with little success - efforts to end the civil war that erupted just two years after South Sudan’s independence, described the deal as an important step towards a comprehensive peace agreement to be signed later this month.
But others were much more sceptical.
“Nothing substantial has come out of this round of talks,” Peter Biar Ajak, director of the Centre for Strategic Analysis and Research in the South Sudanese capital Juba, told IRIN.
The two parties “did not agree on the fundamental issue, the structure of government that will bring an end to the conflict,” he said.
Since it escalated from a split within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in December 2013, the conflict has claimed thousands of lives and forced around two million people to flee their homes.
The two parties arrived in Addis expecting to resume faltering negotiations over a particular power-sharing structure that included a post of prime minister, earmarked for Machar, Ajak explained.
Instead, IGAD presented them with a very different governance blueprint which had not been discussed previously: one comprising a president, a first vice-president and a vice-president. The relative powers of these last two positions led to unresolved disagreements.
“Both Juba and the rebels had serious problems with the [new] structure,” said Ajak.
Asked if the latest signing would bring an end to the war any closer, he said, “I don’t think so. Even yesterday there were reports of fighting in Unity State.”
“What happened in Addis was a series of missed opportunities, largely due to the incompetence coming out of the mediating teams,” he said.
A spokesman for the rebels, officially referred to as the SPLM-In Opposition, lent credence to Ajak’s scepticism.
“The agreement has only outlined the mandate of the would-be transitional government of national unity. The document does not carry any agreement on leadership structure and power-sharing ratios,” Machar’s spokesman, James Gatdet Dak, told the Sudan Tribune.
“This transitional government would be formed by 9 July 2015 if a final peace agreement is signed. There are however many issues pending for further negotiations before a final peace agreement,” he said.
These negotiations are due to resume on 19 February, with a deadline of 5 March established for finalizing a power-sharing agreement.
Further criticism of the Addis Ababa talks came from the Enough Project. Instead of being a turning point, South Sudan policy analyst Justine Fleischner said in a statement, the outcome shows that “IGAD has reached another non-agreement.”
“The bottom line is that in the absence of the promised regime of regional travel bans and asset freezes, the warring parties see no reason to adjust their behavior. IGAD's unwillingness to impose sanctions is in part due to competing regional economic interests and business ties. Meanwhile, the cost of war is being paid by the people of South Sudan,” she added.
Ajak was less pessimistic, pointing out that the near collapse of South Sudan’s economy had greatly undermined the business interests there of IGAD member states Kenya and Uganda and other neighbouring countries.
Previous talks held on 21 January in the Tanzanian city of Arusha - the most recent in a long list of sub-deals signed over recent months, many of which went on to be broken - garnered similar criticism.
The Sudd Institute, a Juba-based think tank, noted the “apparent disconnect” between the political opposition who signed the agreement and “the military commanders of its armed wing.”
Another concern reinforced by the latest talks in Addis is that the desire to secure a lasting peace agreement and keep Kiir and Machar engaged will further delay the release of the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry report on South Sudan (AUCISS).
This had been scheduled to be presented to heads of state at a meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council on 29 January. But, according to an account by South Sudan Law Society Research Director David Deng, the chairman of IGAD, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, successfully moved to delay publication until peace had been achieved, so as not to jeopardize the IGAD process.
The “decision not to publish the AUCISS report casts doubt on the prospects for justice and accountability in South Sudan. It also raises questions as to whether the AU and IGAD are genuinely committed to ending the impunity that they themselves acknowledge to be a driver of violence in the country,” Deng wrote in the African Arguments website.
“Withholding the AUCISS report may actually serve to embolden perpetrators of mass human rights violations, who already feel as though they are untouchable and can act with impunity,” he warned.
“The last year has witnessed a string of agreements to cease hostilities, all of which were violated days or hours after signing. Twenty percent of the population has been displaced, an untold number of people have been killed and relationships among communities are at an all-time low,” he wrote.
“The warring parties continue to pursue military victory at all costs and civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict. To the extent that it may sometimes be necessary to delay justice in the interest of first consolidating peace, the IGAD-led peace process is not demonstrating enough progress to make that sacrifice,” he concluded.