Twenty one years of north-south conflict in Sudan came to an end - at least on paper - on the last day of 2004. The peace accord reached between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) involves a complicated scheme of power and oil revenue sharing. The agreement also gives southern Sudan a strong measure of autonomy that may eventually result in two separate countries.
The conflict erupted in 1983 as southerners accused the central government in Khartoum of depriving them of their share of the country's oil revenues. But Marina Ottaway, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says the roots of this conflict are far older and deeper. "Historically," she says, "the southern part of the Sudan was the area where the Arab slave traders from the north went to get their slaves. Not only are they areas with two different identities, but they're also areas that have been in conflict with each other back to the 19th century, if not before."
Added to that friction is northern Sudan's overwhelming Muslim identity, while the south is largely animist with some Christians. As the government became more strongly Islamic it imposed Q'uranic law - Shari'a - on the entire country, a move that enraged southerners.
The new peace accord seeks to address these significant north-south divisions by making the south, including the central provinces of Abyei, Blue Nile State, and the Nuba Mountains autonomous. Jobs in the central government will be shared, with the SPLA taking the national vice presidency and a percentage of other positions. For the next six years, the south will both take part in a "unity" central government and operate its own regional administration. Then a referendum will decide whether the south remains part of Sudan or becomes independent.
Bathsheba Crocker, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the success of that power sharing will be a major factor in how the referendum vote could turn out. "We will see over the next six years whether there is any coming together in terms of mending fences and building trust between these two sides, whether we see a movement towards secession or whether we see the maintenance of a unified Sudan," she says.
Ms. Crocker adds that the power sharing deal also deliberately creates space for other political forces and leaders besides those in the government's "National Congress Party" and the SPLA. She says this aspect is important to move Sudan beyond control by those two factions toward a more representative democracy.
But another Africa analyst, Dan Goure at the Lexington Institute in Washington, isn't optimistic about this power sharing. He says history has shown that such arrangements between recently warring factions rarely work and explains why Sudan's plan may be headed to failure. "This will make governance all but impossible," he says, adding "When you divide governments politically in this fashion, this is really a political spoils system and the net result is likely to be - even if there isn't outright conflict - chaos."
Despite the potential pitfalls the terms of the peace accord may create, United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan has praised the agreement. He has expressed hope that the pact would also lead to settling the separate conflict in the western Darfur region. There the government and allied militias such as the Janjaweed have been fighting two other rebel groups - the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. Marina Ottaway at Carnegie asserts that the Darfur rebels hoped for gains similar to those won by the SPLA. "Negotiating an agreement with the south opened up another front of fighting between Arabs and Africans in Darfur"
While the United States and other nations have praised the Sudanese government for reaching north-south peace, they also condemn Khartoum's involvement in Darfur. Observers say the international community will need to pressure the incoming "unity" government to end direct and indirect military action and negotiate with Darfur's two rebel groups.
Bathsheba Crocker at CSIS says that pressure - and political inclusion for Darfur's rebels - may be the key to stopping the bloodshed there. "There's the potential that rebel movements in Darfur can eventually morph (change) into political parties who could become major players in a government."
Observers say the credibility of both the international community and Sudan's incoming government depends on bringing all of the country's warring factions into a national political settlement. Humanitarians say that anything less only risks tens of thousands of additional deaths staining Sudan's ancient soil.