When the Khartoum government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) sign Sunday's peace deal, Sudan will take a big step away from two decades of war that have cost millions of lives but the hard part will just be beginning.
The agreement contains sensible compromises painfully negotiated over several years and demonstrates the effectiveness of African-led peacemaking supported by the wider international community. Yet, the document is more important for potential than immediate impact. If the parties uphold it, a principled peace will come to southern and central Sudan. If the government applies the blueprint it offers and moves vigorously towards peace in Darfur, the country could be transformed.
But most indicators point towards a different outcome. The government is signing partially to deflect pressure over Darfur. It is likely to use resulting goodwill to increase attacks there and further undermine opposition elsewhere in the country. Without great international vigilance, implementation of the deal with the SPLM will slide, risking a standoff and return to war.
"The government's objective is to maintain power", said John Prendergast, Special Adviser to Crisis Group's President. "Supporters of the peace deal need to understand it pursues contradictory approaches in different regions with different opposition elements to confuse outsiders and defuse criticism. At once it is concluding peace with the SPLM, attacking in Darfur, and driving the armed groups from eastern Sudan out of the Cairo talks".
The immediate priorities must be to build the new institutions created by this agreement, support the drafting of a revised constitution, push for a more serious commitment to the Darfur talks coupled with an end to government atrocities and rebel ceasefire violations, and establish clear consequences for violation of any of these objectives.
"The ongoing Darfur conflict constrains resources for implementing this deal, diverts international attention from supporting it and weakens the commitment of the parties to its substance", Africa Program Director Suliman Baldo added. Unless a comprehensive international effort is crafted, parts of Sudan will continue to burn, leaving peace in any one part of the country at grave risk. Continuing to deal with Sudan in a piecemeal way ensures the fire will never be extinguished completely".