For days prior to John Garang's arrival, the walls and lampposts of Khartoum had been plastered with his portraits. Twenty-two years is a long time in politics indeed! A few months ago, the mere carrying of an SPLA flag in Khartoum would have invited arrest and lengthy interrogation by the security services.
But on 8 July, the Southern Sudanese displaced from their homes over successive years of war were able to reclaim a victory and "take Khartoum by storm", armed not with guns but with New Sudan flags, palm fronds and chants of "Down, Down, Old Sudan, Up, Up, New Sudan!"
In spite of the typically withering Khartoum heat, the crowds relentlessly poured into the capital's Green Square to stand patiently for hours awaiting the arrival ceremony. President Omar al Bashir's government demonstrated its presence, as ever, with a show of force. Hundreds of heavily armed police lined the main road from the airport to the Green Square where Dr Garang was due to speak. The police officers, many of them Southern Sudanese or Darfuri, seemed as expectant as the crowd.
On arrival, Garang spoke only briefly to greet the crowd, acknowledge the work ahead and express his pleasure at the peace agreement. Of his return to Khartoum, he exclaimed: "I am among my people. I did not return to Sudan, I was always in Sudan."
This was the first time the indefatigable leader had set foot in Khartoum since 1983 when, as a colonel in the national army, he was sent to quell a mutiny of Southern troops in his home district of Bor. Instead of suppressing the rebellion, Garang joined it, leading the 105 Battalion of the Sudanese Army, which he commanded, to become the nucleus of the SPLA.
But as the celebrations have died down, many are asking what this actually means for peace in Sudan? Many of the older generation remember similar events following the signing of the Addis Ababa Accord in 1972, ending an insurgency that had begun at independence.
Joseph Lagu, the then leader of the Southern Anyanya rebel group arrived in Khartoum to less fanfare and a decidedly frosty photo call, but at the time the deal was trumpeted as the resolution of the Sudanese "North-South dilemma".
What is different now is that the ultimate concession of self-rule and the opportunity for self-determination has been wrung from the Northern government. Previously the 1972 agreement focused on integrating the Southern rebels into the national army, unlike the present arrangement that will see the evacuation of the garrison towns in the South which the government had previously concentrated its might, and the redeployment of SPLA troops to those areas.
It is hard to underestimate the importance of this element of the agreement. After 22 years of struggling to control and defeat the Southern rebels, costing the lives of countless young soldiers, the government is walking away from the South. The return of Garang, of course, means different things to different people. …