KHARTOUM, Sudan, Apr 30, 2005 (AP) — Talks on drafting a new national constitution between Sudanese authorities and former rebel foes began Saturday, heralding the start of the most "critical" period in the history of Africa’s largest country, according to President Omar el-Bashir.
- Omar al-Beshir
El-Bashir addressed more than 500 officials, rebel leaders and foreign diplomats who crammed inside Khartoum’s Friendship Hall for the opening of the National Commission for the Reform of the Constitution, a step called for by January’s peace agreement that ended Sudan’s 21-year southern civil war.
Outside the packed hall, hundreds of dancing supporters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which battled government forces in a war that claimed more than 2 million lives, celebrated the launch of the talks, which are expected to continue for several weeks.
El-Bashir said a new Sudanese government comprising members of SPLA’s political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, must be formed by July 9. Before this happens, the six-year transitional constitution must be drawn up and ratified by the existing Sudanese parliament and the SPLM.
"This is the most critical stage in the history of our homeland," el-Bashir said during his address. "This is the phase which paves the way for a real participation in construction of both our soul and soil."
The war pitted the Arab Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum against rebels fighting for greater autonomy and a larger share of the country’s wealth in the largely African animist and Christian south.
But January’s peace deal signed in Kenya made rebel leader John Garang a first vice president, cleared the way for the drafting of a new constitution, and gave southern states the opportunity to vote on secession in six years. The SPLM will also take 30% of seats in a transitional national government. The interim constitution will also pave the way for power and wealth sharing.
SPLM official Nihal Deng delivered an address on behalf of Garang, expressing hope that the Sudanese people will make use of the six-year period to reconcile differences and build a new Sudan based on justice and equality.
Many hope efforts to draw up a new constitution, which will replace the Islamic-oriented one in place since 1998, will spur attempts to reconcile warring sides in Sudan ’s western Darfur region, where a conflict that broke out more than two years ago has killed some 180,000 people, mainly from war-induced hunger and disease, according to U.N. estimates.
"I call on all factions carrying arms to resume negotiations with the aim of realizing peace and uniting the national ranks," el-Bashir said in an apparent reference to rebel groups and government-linked militia groups fighting in Darfur.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail described the launch of efforts to draft a new constitution as an "historic event that is as important as the signing of the peace agreement and as important as the Oslo summit."
Last month in the Norwegian capital Oslo, donor countries pledged to give $4.5 billion over the next two years to cover Sudan ’s humanitarian and reconstruction needs.