Sudan’s transitional government and one of the rebel factions that battled the government of ousted dictator Omar Al Bashir signed a peace deal at the weekend in a small but symbolically significant step towards the nationwide and comprehensive peace the country desperately seeks.
The government has until February 14 to reach such an agreement with all rebel groups under the power-sharing accord signed in August between the generals who removed Al Bashir in April and leaders of the opposition coalition behind months of street protests that paved the way for the removal of the Islamist leader after 29 years in power.
The preliminary peace agreement reached in the South Sudanese capital of Juba on Friday was signed by Mohammad Hamadan Dagalo, a prominent member of the 11-member Sudanese Sovereign Council that operates as a collective presidency, and Malik Agar, chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North which is active in the regions of Blue Nile south of the capital Khartoum and southern Kordofan to the west.
“This is a prelude to peace; and our country will not collapse nor fall within the ranks of failed states,” said Yesir Arman, deputy head of Mr Agar’s SPLM-North.
Mr Agar’s SPLM-North is the much smaller of two factions by the same name. The other, led by Abdel-Aziz Al Hilu, has a much more significant military presence in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, controlling large swathes of territory there.
Its demands match its military muscle. Mr Al Hilu’s faction wants a secular state without religion-based laws, the disbanding of all militias created under Al Bashir’s rule, and a revamp of the armed forces. Such demands are difficult to meet in a Muslim-majority country that is both patriarchal and religiously conservative.
Mr Al Hilu has said that if his movement’s demands are not met, the territories under his control would exercise self-determination – political parlance for secession.
Sudan’s transitional government has made several goodwill gestures in the hope of narrowing the gap with the rebel movements. It has declared a series of ceasefires in the disputed regions, delayed the appointment of a national parliament until peace is agreed and the rebels or their representatives can join. It has also postponed appointing provincial governors until a comprehensive peace agreement is reached to ensure repel representation.
Sudanese leaders and activists believe that peace is necessary for Sudan to revive its battered economy, for years shackled by massive security spending that eats up a big chunk of its budget. Peace will also facilitate Sudan’s removal from a US list of states sponsoring terrorism, which would lead to the lifting of sanctions and allow foreign aid to pour in.
Sudan has seen almost constant civil strife since independence in 1956. A 17-year war between the north and the mainly animist and Christian south ended in 1972, only to be renewed in 1984. The fighting continued for about 20 years before Khartoum agreed to grant the region the right to self-determination. The south seceded in 2011, taking with it most of the country’s oil wealth and plunging Sudan into an economic crisis.
A war in the western Darfur region broke out in the early 2000s, with rebels demanding a bigger share of national resources and an end to what they viewed as discriminatory policies by the Arabised north of Sudan. Some 300,000 people are believed to have perished in that conflict and many more displaced.
Al Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010 for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
The war has largely ended in Darfur, apart from sporadic clashes between rebels on one side and security forces and allied militiamen on the other. There also are rebel movements in the eastern part of the country, like the Beja Conference, leaving only the northern part of Sudan free of insurgencies.