World attention in recent weeks has been focused on violence against civilians in Sudan's western Darfur region. That has overshadowed progress toward a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Army, based primarily in the south of the country. Although the Darfur conflict threatens to undermine the pending peace in the south, the southern rebels have already begun to transform themselves from a militant organization into a political party with a peacetime agenda.
After decades of drawing battle plans, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the SPLA, now faces the daunting task of transforming itself into a political party that may soon be ruling over southern Sudan.
Already the SPLA prefers to be called the Southern People's Liberation Movement, SPLM, as its members begin to shed their combat uniforms and guns in favor of suits and pens.
It is a major transformation, but the SPLM leadership believes that, after two decades of civil war, the movement is ready for the challenge. John Garang has led the SPLA since its founding more than two decade ago, and is set to join the transitional government.
"The Sudanese people want peace," he said. "We have fought for the last 21 years. We believe that our people need respite, that our people need peace, that they need to put their life together again, so that we move into development, so that we see children again laughing and going to school, and we engage in meaningful social and economic development."
The SPLA took up arms against the Muslim Arab government in Khartoum in 1983 to fight for greater autonomy for the predominately black African, Christian and Animist population in the south. About two million people have since died, mainly through war-related famine.
Kenyan-mediated peace talks have led to the terms of a final peace agreement due to be signed soon. It sets up a power-sharing transitional government, and settles three territorial disputes that had fueled the conflict. Earlier accords set the terms for dividing Sudan's oil wealth and created joint military commissions.
Early this month, the SPLM brought together more than 350 local kings, chiefs and other traditional leaders in the remote village of Nateng, near the southwestern border with Kenya for a conference to discuss the peace process.
It was a gathering aimed at launching the SPLM's new direction toward a peacetime existence. During a townhall-like meeting, the delegates overwhelmingly endorsed the peace process, and passionately discussed a range of issues for the new Sudan, from law and order to grassroots efforts to maintain the fragile peace.
But the SPLM is also faced with high expectations from the millions of southern Sudanese who for decades have lived a life of uncertainty filled with fear. Rik Machary is the second-vice president of the SPLM. He says the movement has already taken measures to meet the expectations of the people of southern Sudan.
"Mentally, we're prepared. We are prepared to provide them with schools, clinics, general health service," he said. "We are prepared to open up roads for them to move to access markets or production areas. Given peace, given exploitation of our natural resources, such as oil, in the next six years, we could meet those expectations."
The SPLM also faces the challenge of changing its image, from men with guns to peacetime leaders in a society, where women have a role in rebuilding society.
SPLM member Angelina Teny says party leaders must recognize that women have something important to contribute and permit them to play an active role.
"We want an affirmative action," he said. "I just don't see the SPLM opening its doors and just allowing women [in]. It will take a bit of fighting. It will take a bit of awareness creation, and that women, rights apart, are actually the human resource that you will be denying this nation, if you don't give them the [opportunities]."
Despite all the challenges, hope and optimism is in the air in southern Sudan. Many of the traditional leaders who attended the Nateng conference expressed confidence that peace will finally come to southern Sudan.
Details for the final peace pact are still being negotiated, and are expected to be concluded and signed in less than two months.