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Signing of Sudan Accord to End Africa's Longest War

The government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army are to sign an accord Sunday that will formally end Africa's longest-running war. The agreement came about following intense pressure by the international community. Observers say that the world must keep its attention focused on Sudan to assure lasting peace.

Officials from around the world are expected to attend the ceremony on Sunday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, that will officially mark the end of Sudan's 21-year civil war.

It was a conflict that claimed nearly two million lives through warfare, starvation and disease. It has displaced an estimated four million people. Southern Sudan is among the least developed areas of Africa. Not a single paved road runs through the region, which is roughly the size of Spain and France combined.

The peace agreement came about through intense pressure by the international community and African leaders over the past two years. At one point, it appeared as though ending the war in the south would fail because of the eruption of another conflict in Sudan, this time in the western Darfur region.

But, the government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, stayed the course.

Stephen Morrison is Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"They were boxed in," said Stephen Morrison. "Darfur was grinding along as a terrible, unresolved crisis and this was about the only path, potential path, for moving Sudan out of worsening instability into something that might restabilize the place and offer the possibility of dealing effectively with Darfur."

In Darfur, government-backed militias have been fighting rebel insurgencies for the past two years. The government denies backing the mainly Arab militias, which the United States has accused of committing genocide against the local black population. More than one million people have been displaced by the fighting.

The conflict in southern Sudan has pitted the mostly Arab north against the Christian and animist south, which is populated mainly by black Sudanese. The war erupted in 1983 when the SPLA took up arms against the government to demand greater autonomy and access to resources.

John Garang, a U.S.-trained economist, led the SPLA, relying on support from the Soviet-backed government in neighboring Ethiopia during the Cold War. Khartoum had the backing of the United States.

Lazaro Sumbeiywo, the chief mediator in the peace talks, said more than two decades of warfare has led to deep mistrust, and he says difficult challenges lie ahead.

"First of all there's the question of security arrangements," said Lazaro Sumbeiywo. "Soldiers are always edgy if they think they are going to be disarmed and they do not know any other life. And there is the question of sharing resources. That is a challenge. And the question of sharing power. If you have absolute power and somebody else has to take some of it, it is a challenge."

Under the terms of the peace agreement, southern Sudan could hold a referendum on independence in six years. Both the government of President Omar al-Bashir and the SPLA have agreed to split the country's wealth, particularly oil revenues from wells mostly found in the south.

The former adversaries are to form an integrated army and implement agreements on how to govern three hotly disputed areas. These are the Nuba Mountains, the Southern Blue Nile and the Abyei region.

Long-standing religious and ethnic differences create the backdrop against which Sudan must be rebuilt.

Howard Wolpe, Africa program director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the international community must follow through on Sudan's peace process after Sunday's accord is signed.

"There's much work that needs to be done and my biggest fear, if history is any guide, is that the international community will quickly lower and lessen its involvement and that would be very destructive of the progress that is being made," said Howard Wolpe.

Mr. Sumbeiywo, the chief mediator, says the international community can best help Sudan by assisting southern Sudanese with practical, sustainable solutions. He says Sudanese should be taught how to make a living through fishing, for example, rather than receiving handouts.

And, he says, infrastructure must be put in place to help consolidate the peace.

"People must see a peace dividend," he said. "That if you have peace, then you can have a road, telephones, you can have proper buildings. This is absolutely important."

In the meantime, observers say that the international community will find itself in a difficult position. They say that although the world must follow through with support for Sudan's transition, it must also maintain firm pressure to help bring about an end to the conflict in Darfur.