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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May 2004, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Sudan's peace balancing act
By Richard Dowden
Director, Royal African Society

Travel in southern Sudan and you could believe that the only implements that humanity had invented were guns and bombs.

There are no tarmac roads, no cities, no schools or hospitals here.

Sudanese child
Many parts of southern Sudan have been destroyed by the civil war
Occasionally you catch glimpses of vast farms and planted forests from the colonial period that give a hint of the wealth that might have been created here but most have returned to bush.

Apart from a few aid agency operations - tiny dots on vast landscape the size of France and Germany combined - southern Sudan suffers a subsistence existence untouched by the modern world.

Repeated civil wars have prevented any normal economic function or any development.

The southerners either eke out an insecure and impoverished traditional life as herdsmen or farmers, or they are fighters in the war fields.

Aid assistance

Sudan's civil war begun in 1956 and, apart from break in the 1970s, it has continued ever since.

With the presence of peace an independent or autonomous south could begin to develop.

If the extraordinary resilience of the southern Sudanese people can be translated into energy to build, this could happen quite quickly.

Under the peace agreement, Sudan's new oil wealth - at present 250,000 barrels a day rising to 500,000 by 2005 - is to be split equally between north and south.

When implemented that will provide some funds to build and develop southern Sudan as well as the north.

However, Sudan will still need billions of dollars of aid for reconstruction.

The financial aid will be needed quickly if ordinary Sudanese are to be convinced that peace does bring tangible benefits.

But the peace deal is fraught with dangers.

Although it is seen as ending a war between the "Muslim Arabised north" and the "Black African, Christian or animist south" this is a huge simplification of one of Africa's most diverse countries.

The split between north and south is only one of many fault lines in this vast country that straddles the divide between the dry Sahel and the forests and plains of equatorial Africa.

The end of one war here could start another.

While the recent peace talks have been running a new war has started in Darfur in the far west of Sudan.

Dinka dictator?

The civil war has been between the southern leadership of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and the northern government in Khartoum.

These are powerful groups but they are both minorities in their respective areas.

The leadership of SPLM is drawn almost entirely from the Dinka people, one of dozens of groups who inhabit the south.

Vice-President Ali Osman Taha addressing crowds in Khartoum
Ordinary Sudanese are desperate for peace
Its leader, John Garang, is a military man who has survived rebellions in the movement.

The rebel movement has been accused of being undemocratic and doing nothing for the people it claims to be fighting for.

The southern military commanders need to become real leaders, listen to southern Sudanese and create plans to develop the region.

But the question is whether they will treat all areas equally or will they become another greedy oppressive tribal elite led by a dictator.

Oppressive ruler

A similar problem is posed for the north.

At present it is ruled by a tiny elite which has used religion and war to enforce its dictatorship.

President Omar al-Bashir, has been one of the most oppressive rulers Sudan has known.

With the war seemingly over, he could relax his grip and become democratic and inclusive or he could use the new oil wealth to bolster its power.

Ali Osman Taha(l) and John Garang (r)
The rebels and the government are talking not fighting
With more than two million non-Muslim southerners living around the capital, Khartoum, the government will find it hard to keep northern Sudan strictly Islamic.

The peace agreement allows for a six-month period to agree a new constitution, then six years to implement it, ending in a referendum by southerners on the future of the south.

But "the south" is not yet defined; three crucial areas are still disputed - despite a power-sharing deal.

Furthermore the Americans, who have driven the peace process recently, have not set up any monitoring process to ensure it keeps on track.

Best chance

In the past the government and the SPLM have cheerfully signed up to ceasefires and agreements, using the lull in the fighting to rest and rearm before resuming hostilities when it suited them.

That may be difficult for them this time because of the enormous pressure the US and others have exerted but what levers are there to ensure that both sides stick to the agreement?

Refugee camp in Darfur
As peace breaks out in the south, war is raging in Darfur
By the time the referendum comes round in 2010 there will be a different government in Washington.

And in the end will northerners accept a separate south?

It will be autonomous for the next six years but final separation could spark angry nationalism.

There are also many outsiders with an interest in Sudan.

For instance, Egypt is firmly opposed to a separate south that would create a new state on the River Nile, which it regards as its life-line.

Israel on the other hand has allegedly been giving military aid and other support to the southern rebels to keep up pressure on the Arab world.

And the Arab league may view the split in Sudan as a threat to Arab unity.

Meanwhile to the south, rebels in neighbouring northern Uganda get support from the Khartoum government while Kenya, Uganda and many countries in the rest of Africa, have always supported the SPLM.

The present peace process may be the best opportunity Sudan has ever had but if it is to work, far deeper changes are required from all the participants than they think necessary at the moment.

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