Former South Sudanese rebels in t-shirts and sandals marched alongside government forces in a display to reassure international monitors progress is being made on tasks related to forming a long-delayed unity government.
The casual nature of forces gathering at a camp near Juba showed the former warring sides are struggling to meet a Saturday deadline.
President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar repeatedly pushed back the deadline for forming a unity government, the main component of the 2018 peace agreement that ended a five-year-old war. In November, they bought more time and pledged to form it by February 22.
Machar arrived in Juba from Khartoum on Monday and he and Kiir are due to meet.
In a sign preparations were not complete more than 500 men loyal to Machar arrived at the camp to join what is to be a 3,000-strong protection force meant to be operational by Saturday.
The VIP force will guard Kiir, Machar and senior officials in the future government. It is intended to prevent the scenario that triggered violence in Juba in 2013 and 2016 – fighting between close protection forces of Kiir and Machar.
“It’s still uncertain if a new government will be formed by the deadline. The parties will not finish all agreed tasks by then, so they will have to sit and agree the path forward”, said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Both sides blame the other for not meeting the deal’s milestones, especially integration of forces. Analysts say another obstacle is Kiir does not wish to share his nation’s oil revenues with his longtime foe.
“They are lagging,” said an international visitor to the camp, Norway’s ambassador to South Sudan Siv Kaspersen.
Foreign governments backing the deal did not expect the force to be fully trained by Saturday, she said, but added it was critical forces receive equipment by Friday.
The hasty combining of forces comes after Kiir acceded to a rebel demand cutting the number of states in the country.
South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 when Kiir sacked his then deputy Machar.
The conflict killed an estimated 400,000 people, triggered a famine and created Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.