Sudan's government and rebels sign landmark peace deal

Resolving long-running conflicts is a key goal for transitional government steering country to full democracy

Sudan’s transitional government and a coalition of rebel groups signed a landmark peace deal on Saturday to end years of fighting that strained the ethnic and religious fabric of the vast Afro-Arab nation and deepened its international isolation under the rule of dictator Omar Al Bashir.

The signing ceremony in Juba, capital of South Sudan, came more than a month after the deal was reached and initialled by representatives of the government and rebel groups. Saturday’s agreement was also signed by Chad, Qatar, Egypt, the African Union and the United Nations as guarantors.

“Peace will open broad horizons for development, progress and prosperity,” Sudan’s transitional prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, told reporters upon arrival at the ceremony in Juba, which hosted the talks that yielded Saturday’s agreement.

Striking a note of caution amid the euphoria surrounding the deal, Mr Hamdok said “the peace-building process faces various challenges and pitfalls that we can only overcome through concerted efforts and joint actions”.

A series of precarious ceasefires have prevailed in Sudan’s conflict zones in the south and west of the country since the removal in April last year of Al Bashir, whose 29-year rule saw a multitude of conflicts that threatened the country’s unity and deepened its economic woes.

It was under Al Bashir’s watch that Sudan’s mainly Christian and animist south seceded in 2011 at the end of a civil war against the Muslim and Arabised north that raged for more than two decades. The secession handed Sudan its worst economic crisis in decades because most of the country’s oil wealth was located in the south.

Ironically, Saturday’s outdoor signing ceremony was held at Juba’s Freedom square, home to the tomb of John Garang, the army colonel from south Sudan who led the rebellion against the north from 1983 until his death in a helicopter crash in 2005, shortly after the two sides reached the peace deal that gave the south the right to self-determination.

Much of the ceremony was in held under rainy conditions and a threateningly cloudy sky.

“The signing of this agreement today is a significant day for Sudan and South Sudan; it means the end of suffering for many Sudanese in different corners of Sudan and outside Sudan,” said Mini Arko Minawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement, which is part of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, or SRF, the coalition that reached the agreement with the Khartoum government.

Peace is desperately needed in Sudan to reduce the country’s massive defence spending – about half of the national budget – and divert funds to public services and overhauling its collapsing infrastructure. It is also required to secure the resumption of aid by western donors unhappy at continuing widespread human rights violations in the conflict areas.

Under the agreement initialled on August 31 and signed on Saturday, rebel representatives will be given three seats on the Sovereignty Council, the collective presidency that has ruled Sudan since the conclusion in 2019 of power-sharing agreement between the military and the pro-democracy groups that led the uprising against Al Bashir. The agreement also offered the rebels five ministerial posts and 75 of the 300 seats of a transitional parliament yet to be formed.

The difficult parts of the deal are those pertaining to the gradual integration of rebels into the armed forces, and compensating civilians forced from their homes by the fighting and those who lost their land to the government or allied militias.

Last month, a key demand of one of two major rebel groups not included in Saturday's agreement was met when the government explicitly acknowledged the principle of separation of state and religion as the basis of Sudan’s future constitution. The acknowledgment came in a joint declaration with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a major rebel group active in the west and south of the country.

The SPLM-North’s leader, Abdel Aziz Al Hilu, has long championed a secular state to replace Al Bashir’s Islamist government.

The other major rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement-Army led by Abdel Wahed Nour, does not recognise Sudan’s transitional government and refuses to enter negotiations.

Sudan has been plagued by civil wars since its independence in 1956. Although there have been numerous peace deals, most quickly collapsed through the resumption of fighting or the government’s inability to honor its commitments. However, the prospects for the success of the latest agreement are good given the growing conviction among the Sudanese and their post-Al Bashir leaders that the country’s certain fate will be a failed state or further splits if peace does not prevail. Moreover, Sudan’s transitional government enjoys the political support of the West, which sees the country as a model to follow as it shifts toward democratic rule.

Al Bashir, who came to power after a coup in 1989, gave the wars against southern and western rebels from ethnic African groups sectarian and racial undertones, portraying his regime’s cause as a just struggle waged in the name of Islam or Arabism.  He was indicted a decade ago for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, where his forces fought an uprising in the 2000s by ethnic Africans complaining of discrimination.

The deposed leader is serving a two-year sentence for corruption and faces further charges related to the 1989 coup and the deadly shooting of protesters during the uprising against his rule that began in December 2018.

The UAE welcomed the signing of the agreement.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation expressed its appreciation to all parties involved in the "historic achievement".

The Ministry said it continues to support "everything that contributes to enhancing the country's security, stability and prosperity while achieving the aspirations of the Sudanese people."