On August 31, 2020 a historic event took place in Juba, the capital of the Republic of South Sudan. This was the signing of the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) between Sudan's transitional government and six Sudanese rebel groups comprising the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) and the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minnawi. Two other rebel groups, those led by veteran insurgent leaders Abdul Wahid Nur and Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, did not sign the agreement but remain in contact with Khartoum. The negotiations had been facilitated by South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit.
The agreement came after a year of difficult negotiations and is a signal accomplishment for Sudan's fragile transitional state which took over after the overthrow of the 30-year Bashir regime in 2019. Underscoring the importance of the pact, almost all of Sudan's political leadership participated in the signing, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, and the Council's powerful strongman and Vice-Chair, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo.
Sudanese history is littered with peace agreements, mostly failed ones. Sudan's civilian or transitional governments twice tried and failed, in 1964 and 1985, in achieving a peace deal between Khartoum and South Sudanese rebels. Sudan's dictators have done a bit better. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement, signed by the dictator Gaafar Nimeiry, ended the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972). Nimeiry then broke that agreement in 1983, declaring an Islamic state and triggering the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). The regime of Islamist dictator Omar al-Bashir ended that war by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, ending one of the longest civil wars in Africa. While the CPA would eventually lead to the independence of South Sudan, it did not end low intensity conflicts that had flared up in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions of Sudan.
The two groups that did not sign are significant but probably not deal breakers or disrupters by themselves. There is a ceasefire in place that has more or less held for all groups. Abdul Wahid Nur, who heads the mostly Fur faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (Minnawi's faction is mostly of Zaghawa ethnic origin), has been dubbed "Mister No," for years by both Westerners and some Sudanese. While he does have a base among his own ethnic group, particularly in the Jebel Marrah region, the Paris-based Nur does not have a strong armed force in the field. Abdul Wahid's strengthen lies in his consistent refusal to be part of Khartoum peace agreements that eventually turned out to be failures.
The other refusenik, veteran Nuba rebel Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu, heads a faction of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) that split in 2017 into warring factions. The Malik Agar (Blue Nile region-based) faction signed the agreement. The split within the SPLM-N was motivated as much by personal conflict as it is by ethnicity but Al-Hilu has insisted that before there can truly be peace, Sudan must declare itself to be a truly secular state rather than an Islamic one. The concern being that an Islamic Sudan will, sooner or later, turn coercive and violent against non-Muslims or secularists as eventually happened with the Addis Ababa Agreement and the CPA.
This new agreement aims to definitively settle these brutal and bloody but often forgotten brush wars that have stunted and isolated Sudan while inflicting incalculable harm to local people in these very marginalized areas. As with previous peace agreements, the rebel signatories will get political positions and government sinecures in Khartoum. But this agreement aims to tangibly improve lives on the ground in conflict zones. The rebel groups are supposed to get 30% of posts in their regional governments, which will receive 40 percent of locally raised revenues (including oil revenues), and a new fund will pay $750 million a year for 10 years to impoverished Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Equally heartening is the establishing of a National Commission for Religious Freedom, with local branches, to help safeguard the rights of the Sudanese Christians, who are a significant group in both Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
Weathering a fierce economic crisis, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic, Sudan desperately needs both peace and justice and this agreement is a considerable step in the right direction. The fact that signing in Juba were the fragile Khartoum government's most powerful leaders – the head of the civilian administration and the two key generals – is significant. Sudan definitely deserves greater international support after this peace pact, as it has deserved since the transition from Bashir regime rule began in August 2019.
But while this agreement can and should be embraced by the international community, it is weak. It is weak not because of bad intentions by the signatories, nor because of insufficient concessions, but because governance in general is weak in a country the size of Sudan. Armed groups and paramilitaries, some part of the legacy of the Bashir regime and some tribal or ethnic groups, abound (much of Khartoum's war in these regions was implemented by locally recruited tribal militias fighting traditional enemies on the rebel side). Low level violence by local actors – fighting over grazing land or water or other resources – continues in all these areas covered by the peace agreement and in areas that are not.
Naysayer Al-Hilu is not completely wrong when he demands more from Khartoum. But the key to ensuring peace in far-flung regions is not so much in securing a commitment to secularism but in ensuring that there is a central government in Khartoum that is both functional and just. This is best done by empowering the Hamdok-led transitional government. It is a major development that the JPA enshrines decentralization but that commitment will only survive if there is a law-abiding government in Sudan which respects such agreements. That is certainly true today, but will it remain so in 2022 when the transition period ends? Now is the time for the international community, through deeds rather than words, to buttress the progress made in this agreement and in the formulation of a mostly civilian transitional government. Peace, justice, and development will be ensured in Sudan's marginalized communities when peace, justice and development are ensured for Khartoum.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.