Witnessing the celebratory euphoria at the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ceremony in Nairobi, it became clear that many might have doubted this day would ever come. In an unprecedented show of cooperation and after so many previously failed attempts at securing a peace agreement, pen was finally put to paper on 9 January.
However, despite this rush of optimism, many of Sudan's other conflicts roll on unabated. With the international community still paralysed at the horror of Darfur, the brutal suppression of civilian protests in the East, and continuing uncertainty in the South, many Sudanese people are asking "what can this peace process bring for us?". This is especially felt in Sudan's peripheral regions where, many hundreds of miles from Khartoum, communities have for decades complained of marginalisation from decision-making, unaddressed poverty and neglect.
For many in the East, West and South, the CPA is yet another political process from which they have been shut out. The National Islamic Front government in Khartoum represents a minority of the population, and the SPLA although popular in the South for leading the resistance, has never had its support base measured by any popular test. Hence this is widely seen as an agreement of two minorities.
According to the veteran Southern Sudanese leader and former minister, Bona Malwal, this situation brings echoes of the last implemented peace agreement 30 years ago:
"The 1972 Addis Ababa agreement failed because the two parties thought they owned it. It was not seen as the property of the country. Unfortunately in Sudan and in all Africa, individuals who find themselves in power behave as if they own the country and what they decide is what should go. You will find that many parties that have been excluded from the CPA for this reason will then be opposed to the agreement and opposition grows sooner rather than later and it undermines the agreement itself."
The critical issue at the heart of the CPA is self-determination for Southern Sudan--ie, that the people of the South will be given the opportunity to vote in a referendum to stay united with, or become independent from, the rest of Sudan. Although at first glance self-determination may appear an exclusively Southern issue, it is a truly national concern. For politicians like Salah Jakeen, spokesman of the Beja Congress, the issue is critical: "Once the South separates," he says, "many other regions will also move to breakaway. If you drop a plate, it does not break into two pieces! Sudan is more than North and South. The separation of the South will set a precedent."
Indeed the lesson that other regions could take from the decades of Southern struggle is that armed resistance may eventually pay off, despite the terrible cost. Both the Eastern Beja Congress and Darfurian Justice and Equality Movement are demanding a federal Sudan but their futures are inextricably linked to developments in the South.
The national and international recognition of the legitimacy of Southern Sudanese demands for self-determination have opened the possibility to other regions that they can also attain recognition.
The CPA promises a six-year interim period in which Southern Sudan will be governed by a regional administration. According to Bona Malwal, actions speak louder than words, and the interim period is the last opportunity for pro-unity politicians to prove that a united Sudan is a viable option.
"A lot can be done in six years to make a difference," says Malwal. "If I see a new behaviour and attitude then I will know that a lesson has been learned from the past. Equality can be achieved in six months if people are serious about it, with an immediate programme of action. People don't ask for independence in order to raise a flag; people want to be in charge of their own affairs. …