Peace in Sudan. A historic agreement puts an end to 17 years of civil war

The Sudanese government and rebel groups have signed a historic peace agreement, the start of a new chapter for the country after 17 years of civil war.

It feels like the start of a new era for Sudan. An era of peace. On the 31st of August, after a prolonged and bloody civil war, the Sudanese government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which represents rebel groups from the regions of West Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile, reached an agreement to put an end to a conflict that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is not the first peace agreement to have emerged, but this time it feels like the real deal as all but two of the rebel factions have signed it.

A conflict that lasted 17 years

For decades, Sudan experienced several outbreaks of conflict. The war in Darfur is one of the best-known internationally. In this region clashes began in 2003 between the Janjaweed, an Arab militia or nomadic origin belonging to the Baggara tribe – a minority in the area but the majority in the rest of the country – and the region’s black non-Baggara population represented by the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Chero Kasi village, in Darfur, destroyed by the Janjaweed
Chero Kasi village, in Darfur, destroyed by the Janjaweed © Scott Nelson/Getty Images

The clashes were based in ethnic and religious divisions as well as economic issues related to access to land and the sharing of fossil fuel profits in the oil-rich region. From the beginning, the government in Khartoum indirectly supported the Janjaweed, who wrought carnage on Darfur’s native people. This has caused millions of people to flee the region over the years, in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century. The central government’s support for the atrocities committed by Islamic militias in non-Arab villages led the International Criminal Court to accuse President Omar Al Bashir of war crimes. According to the United Nations, more than 300,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the war in Darfur, and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Other hotbeds of tensions are located in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, where clashes began in 2011, a sort of continuation of the Sudanese civil war of 1983. Clashes in these regions happened between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

A peace deal that leaves everyone satisfied

A peace agreement for Darfur had already been signed in 2006, but fighting resumed a few months later. This time, however, things should go differently. The build-up to the deal was long and nothing was left to chance. The end of Bashir’s regime in 2019 and the inauguration of a new government headed by former UN official Abdalla Hamdok has propelled a process of renewal and political stabilisation in Sudan. This situation is certainly more consistent with a credible peace process.

The agreement includes eight protocols. Among the most important measures are increased autonomy granted to the governments of the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and West Darfur; the creation of a commission to ensure the rights of Christian communities in the country’s South are protected; integration of fighters from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLM-N) into the Sudanese Army within 39 months; guarantees that 40 per cent of the revenue generated in South Kordofan and Blue Nile stays in those territories; the securing of positions in national political institutions for representatives from these regions; the repatriation of millions of displaced people who fled the conflict because of violence and persecution.

“The government has achieved a crucial result,” Camillo Casola, a researcher for the Africa programme at the Milan-based Institute for International Politics Studies (ISPI), explains. “Peace-building in the southern regions of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, as well as Darfur, has been a top priority in Prime Minister Hamdok’s political agenda: without a prerequisite for stabilising the country, and a precondition for the success of the democratic transition that began last year. Furthermore, the success in achieving a comprehensive peace agreement unquestionably guarantees significant political returns to Sudan’s transition in terms of credibility in the eyes of its people and the international community”.

Rebels from the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)
Rebels from the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) © Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The contents of the deal are also favourable for the armed rebel groups. “They’ve obtained important political concessions: improved sharing of power and wealth, political and administrative autonomy, rearrangement of state structures, army reform and professionalisation,” Casola continues. “On paper, each of the parties can boast (relative) success following the signing of the peace deal”.

Risks for the future

However, not all rebel groups have signed the agreement. The faction led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu and the one headed by Abdel Wahid al-Nur took issue with the fact that the text still devotes too little attention to the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. In particular, they demand that the principle of state secularism be introduced.

Nevertheless, the outlook is still promising and there’s widespread optimism about the deal. The groups that haven’t signed have confirmed they’re still interested in the peace process and willing to continue negotiations. On the 3rd of September, Prime Minister Hamdok and rebel leader al-Hilu signed a declaration of intent which states, among other things, that the separation of church and state must be a foundational principle in the new Sudanese constitution, as demanded by the non-signatories to the peace deal. A positive sign pointing towards a definitive end to the conflict.

All in all, this peace agreement seems much sturdier than the ones signed in the past. “The government finally seems to have the concrete political will to meet the armed factions’ demands and petitions, and, more generally, to include long-marginalised peripheral elites in the nation’s political and economic activities. Even the rebel groups seem to realise this is a historic opportunity to obtain real political concessions,” Casola highlights. “What remains to be seen, however, is whether the institutions in Khartoum will be able to effectively implement the deal and whether it will be truly inclusive. If the rebel groups are faced with what they feel is an implementation deficit, perhaps they might find it politically expedient to return to the tactic of armed resistance against the state. And of course, there’s also the fact that peace-making between the signatory rebel groups and the state won’t necessarily correspond to peace-making on a different level, i.e. among communities and ethno-religious groups whose divisions were often the catalysts of conflict, in Darfur especially”.

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