The agreement reached on January 9th between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or S.P.L.M., heralds an unprecedented era of cooperation between the Islamic regime in the north and the mostly animist and Christian south. It provides for a six-year interim period of autonomy, followed by a referendum that would give southerners the choice of joining a federation with Khartoum or declaring independence.
This notion does not alarm Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun
Ahmed, who voices a certain resignation. He says, "The idea of this six interim period, in which the south will be an integral part of the federal government -- and according to the agreement we share the oil revenues evenly -- should be attractive to the southern Sudanese to remain within a united Sudan. That's our hope. But if our brothers and sisters in the south opt differently, it will be painful. But we will respect their decision."
But John Andruga, the S.P.L.M. Representative to the European Union, says that for years southerners have been marginalized economically, politically and culturally, and that it is now up to Khartoum to convince them to vote for unity. He adds, "We want the country to remain united, but the problem here is that we cannot force unity on the people of southern Sudan or the Sudanese people. We would like the Sudanese to unite in a free and fair unity. So my point to you is that the outcome of the referendum in southern Sudan will be determined by the people there themselves."
Some analysts say that secession by the south is not imminent, although it remains possible in the long run.
Ali Dinar, Director of the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center points out that the resource-rich south struggled for independence since the beginning of Sudan's civil war in 1955. Mr. Dinar says, "If I am from the south, I don't see why I will choose to be in a state in which I will be treated as a second-class citizen while I have an option of establishing my own government, my own state and, at the same time, I have my own resources because most of the oil being discovered now is in the south."
But most experts agree that a southern secession does not necessarily mean that rebels in the east, and in the western region of Darfur and will follow suit. Some argue that these disparate factions do not share the same goals, and tend to be more interested in a reformed and democratized central government than in breaking away from Khartoum.
While analysts generally agree that it is too early to predict the outcome, Steve Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. says the country's other conflicts could derail the accord. Such divisions, he says, are not good for Africa or the West. He says, "The West was willing to stand by the North-South Peace Agreement which lays open the possibility of the secession of the south. But I think the West's general sentiment is in favor of preserving the unity of Khartoum under reformed governance that is more inclusive and democratic."
Darfur and human rights activists are skeptical of Khartoum's intentions. They question whether the government has the political will to implement reforms, and some say it will only do so under pressure.
But Sudan's Ambassador to the U.S., Khidir Ahmad, insists his government is serious about peace, reform, and unity. A divided Sudan, he notes, does not serve the interests of the Sudanese people, Africa, or the world.
Mr Ahmad says, "So this will not be in the interest of international security and peace, and security at the O.A.U. I don't think it will benefit the Africans themselves. People will end up in landlocked countries with so many limited resources."
Most observers note that the road ahead is fraught with danger, and that smooth implementation of the peace accord is not guaranteed.
The United Nations' special envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, recently called upon the Sudanese people to consider unity as an option. During a recent visit to Khartoum, he warned that a divided Sudan would pose a threat to the region, and to international peace and security.
For now, both sides say they remain committed to the spirit and letter of the accord.
This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.