By Victoria Engstrand-Neacsu
NAIROBI, May 27, 2004 (dpa) — When the Sudanese government and the main southern rebel group signed a landmark agreement Wednesday - the culmination of two years of hard negotiations - there were smiles all around in the lakeside resort of Naivasha. Sudanese women were ululating and the formerly bitter enemies were sharing jokes. But the agreement will be put to a tough test in the coming weeks, experts said.
"The next couple of weeks will be telling. Will the fighting stop or not? If it stops it will be a good sign," a Western diplomat in Kenya told Deutsche Presse Agentur, dpa.
"I do expect an improvement, but the proof will be in what happens on the ground," he added.
Wednesday’s agreement, divided into three protocols, lays out the percentages of power each party will have in a future government, the status of three disputed states in central Sudan, as well as the religious status of the capital Khartoum.
Under the agreement, Khartoum, which is situated in the Islamic north, will be ruled by Sharia law, but non-Moslems will be exempted from the religious law.
During earlier talks, the two sides agreed that Sudan’s Christian and animist south can decide on secession from the Islamic government in Khartoum after a six-year interim period.
The parties also decided earlier to share profits from the country’s oil reserves.
The parties still have to agree on a ceasefire. The next step will be a comprehensive peace agreement, which commentators believe will be finalized within a month. It will be followed by a so-called pre-interim period of around six months, before the establishment of an interim government for Sudan.
John Garang, leader of the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), called Wednesday’s agreement a "momentous occasion in the history of our country".
"We have reached the crest of the last hill in our tortuous ascent toward peace. The remainder, I believe, is flat ground," he said.
But Garang also said the first "test" would be "reconciliation between adversaries on both sides of the north-south divide, so that we can finally say a farewell to arms in southern Sudan and take up the instruments of reconstruction".
The Sudanese Vice President, Ali Osman Taha, said the signing of the protocols was a "step forward for us reaching a comprehensive peace for the country".
"It is our duty in Sudan to put life into the words of the protocol we have signed today and put them into action," he said.
But some Sudan-watchers have suggested the two parties still stand too far apart for a real reconciliation to take place.
In the last few weeks a lot of military action has been reported in Shilluk Kingdom in central Sudan, and many villages have reportedly been destroyed.
"The government has been trying to recover territory which was previously under its control," said a diplomat.
Monitors in the area say the government has transported militias on barges down the river, enabling them to attack villages from the water.
This would seem to be a similar tactic to that in Darfur, where Khartoum has been accused of arming and aiding the local militias in attacks against civilians.
While the protocols signed in Naivasha were seen as a major achievement, commentators say the western Darfur region, where government-backed Arab militias have attacked civilians for over a year, should not be forgotten.
"The government of Sudan should deliver on their promises. If it (Wednesday’s signing) puts them in the spirit that is necessary to come to an agreement (with the rebel groups in Darfur), that’s good," said Susan Linnee, head of the East Africa office of the think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG).
"They (the government in Khartoum) should seek a serious political discussion with the groups (in Darfur)," she said, but added that the most important thing is that attacks on civilians in Darfur are stopped.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the agreement but urged the Sudanese government and opposition groups in Darfur to "seize the momentum created in Naivasha to reach a political solution" and put an end to "grave humanitarian and human rights situations there".
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell commended both sides, but called on Khartoum to stop the violence by government- backed Janjaweed militias against civilians in Darfur and allow unrestricted access to humanitarian workers and monitors to western Sudan.
Powell held out the carrot of "normalization of bilateral relations" once the problems of Darfur are resolved.
He expressed hope that the agreement would "have favourable affect" on the situation in Darfur.
Powell urged both sides to quickly work out details of a formal ceasefire and security arrangements.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka told reporters in Naivasha that he hoped the signing would have a positive impact on the situation in Darfur.
"It will give people hope," he said.
The head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, was not impressed with the imminent signing when he spoke during a visit to Washington recently.
"It is unacceptable to celebrate a peace agreement while Darfur continues being bombarded and people are terrorised," he said.
The war in southern Sudan has raged since 1983. At least two million people are believed to have lost their lives as a result of the conflict.