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Onetime Enemies Join Forces to Lead Sudan on Rocky Road to Peace

by Marc Lacey for The New York Times, July 10, 2005

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 9 - Sudan elevated a former rebel leader on Saturday to the vice presidency of the government he had long tried to overthrow, a merging of onetime combatants into a single leadership that took Sudan another step away from decades of war.

In an elaborate ceremony in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir appointed John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, as his top deputy. The two longtime enemies waged one of Africa's longest-running civil wars, which caused an estimated two million deaths before a cease-fire accompanied the signing of a peace agreement in January.

But analysts cautioned that Sudan's challenges remain formidable. Power-sharing experiments in countries like Congo, Somalia, and Burundi are fragile, underscoring the brittle nature of such pacts and the fact that the hard work of nation-building begins when the hoopla that follows peace agreements settles.

Still, there was plenty of celebration in Khartoum as the old foes came together at the presidential palace to herald a new start for a country that has experienced far more war than peace since its independence from British-Egyptian rule in 1956. On Friday night, an estimated one million people packed into a central square to welcome Mr. Garang, who last visited the capital 22 years ago.

Besides sharing political power, the government and the southern rebels have agreed to divide up the region's oil wealth, merge their armies and hold a referendum in six years to let southerners, who are predominantly Christian and animist, decide to whether to secede from the rest of Sudan, which is mainly Muslim.

"There's a lot that has to go right for this to work," said David Mozersky, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research institution that follows conflict zones throughout the world. "We can be happy that Sudan has reached this point, but it's too early to celebrate and to consider this an end to the conflict."

Despite the truce between the Sudanese government army and Mr. Garang's southern rebels, skirmishes continue between the rebels and militia groups in the south allied with the government. Rebels have also emerged in eastern Sudan with their own grievances against the government.

Then there is the conflict in the western Darfur region of Sudan, which has drawn international condemnation because of the government's heavy-handed tactics against the civilian population. Peace talks between the government and two groups of Darfur rebels, held in Nigeria, produced a declaration of principles this week but no comprehensive settlement.

"The peace process between north and south must be made irreversible, which it will not be unless it takes root in the east and in the west as well," said Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, one of numerous foreign dignitaries on hand for the ceremony.

Oil remains a source of tension between the government and the Garang-led southerners. Mr. Garang's rebel movement began in 1983 after Chevron discovered oil in the area straddling the country's north and south. Southerners argued that the revenue was only benefiting the north.

The biggest challenge of all may be meeting the expectations of southerners, who are tired of war and eager to see their dismal lives change for the better. Despite commitments of substantial amounts of foreign aid, southern Sudan's needs are profound. The area lacks roads and even basic infrastructure. Diseases wiped out in most other parts of the world continue to thrive there, like guinea worm and river blindness. "We are starting from point zero," Mr. Garang said in a recent interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a newspaper in London. He added: "We in the south have not seen development from the time God created Adam and Eve."

Mr. Garang, 60, is a burly, bearded academic with a fiery temper and a way with words. From the southern Dinka tribe, Mr. Garang speaks English and Arabic, enabling him to bridge the country's language gap.

Although rebels-turned-politicians are commonplace in Africa, Mr. Garang may be one of the few with a doctorate, which he earned in Iowa State University's agricultural economics department. He also attended a United States Army infantry officer's course at Fort Benning, Ga.

His rebel movement has been criticized by human rights organizations for abuses that included summary executions, arbitrary detentions and stealing from civilians. Now the challenge will be transforming that rebel group it into a full-fledged political party that can represent the long-suffering people of the south.

"The future of my country lies in the hands of God," said the Rev. Samuel Alith of the Reform Anglican Church of Sudan, who like thousands of other Sudanese fled to Kenya during the war. "You can never trust these politicians."

There are many comparisons around Africa to illustrate the challenges Mr. Garang and Mr. Bashir will face. Somalia's foes-turned-colleagues have come to blows and remain on the verge of war despite broad-based government. In Congo, leaders who were at war with each other remain wary, even as they sit in the same government in Kinshasa. Burundi's peace accord between rival Hutu and Tutsi is regarded by some analysts as fragile despite recent elections. Mr. Garang said his expectations were realistic and noted that his rebel movement would keep some troops in place for the next six years to ensure the intentions of the government leaders he is now joining in Khartoum. United Nations peacekeeping forces are also being deployed in the south. Mr. Garang sounded an optimistic note in a speech after his swearing-in ceremony.

"Sudan will never be the same again," he said.

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Posted July 11, 2005