Breakthrough agreements reached in the past week in two of Africa's most intractable conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are offering new hope to the world's most war-ravaged continent.
Last weekend, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government surprised many with a deal guaranteeing the religious freedom of the southern Sudanese and allowing them to vote on secession.
Then, on Monday, the government of Congo agreed to round up the Rwandan opposition militias located on its territory, while the Rwandan government agreed to withdraw its troops from eastern Congo.
After years of unsuccessful negotiations, the agreements are being credited to a combination of growing economic interests in the countries, a post-Sept. 11 awareness that collapsed states can shelter terrorists, and intense diplomatic pressure, particularly from the United States.
Sudan's civil war has dragged on for all but 11 of its 46 years of independence. The rebels went to war for greater autonomy for the south and to prevent Khartoum from imposing Islamic law on the region's mainly non-Muslim population.
The war in Congo started in August 1998 when Rwanda invaded the east of the country, ostensibly to defeat the ethnic Hutu militiamen who carried out genocide in Rwanda in 1994. At its height, seven African nations had troops in Congo.
While the two wars appear quite different, the countries themselves share certain key similarities. Both are vast each larger than the US east of the Mississippi and geopolitically significant. Both are beset by deep ethnic divisions and effectively partitioned as a result of the war. Both are economically fragile, hugely in debt, and have been unable to attract significant funding from Western donors. And both hold great potential for natural resource extraction: Congo in minerals and hydro-power, Sudan in oil.
Sanctions imposed in 1990 have prohibited US businesses from making new investments in Sudan, which is on the US government's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. But since 1999, the country has moved from being a net oil importer to an exporter of more than 200,000 barrels a day. The government earned some $800 million from oil last year, and much of its proven reserves have yet to be tapped.
"It's become very important for the Sudan government to see the American sanctions lifted, and it's been made very clear to the Sudanese government they are not going to be lifted unless there was more progress toward a solution to the conflict in the south," says David Smock of the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
While the Clinton administration tried to isolate the government in Khartoum, the Bush administration under pressure from the oil industry and the Christian right decided to engage it. But according to State Department officials, the US was clear about its intentions. The administration's war on terrorism and US military intervention in Afghanistan was a not-so-subtle reminder of what could happen to uncooperative state sponsors of terrorism.
"We approached them saying, 'We are different, we are willing to see if we can put this idiocy [of the war] aside through talks,'" says a senior State Department official. But the US also warned the government that "we're not neutral, we're on the south's side and by the way, you're on our terrorist list."
Meanwhile, Congo has become a kind of lawless Wild West through corruption and official neglect, attractive to anyone who wants to carry out such illicit activities as funding crime or terrorism, says François Grignon, a Nairobi-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.
"You can disappear in the Congo if you have money," says Mr. Grignon. "It is in the interest of the US that the Congo doesn't remain in this kind of quagmire, that some kind of administrative authority is established in countries like the Congo."
The Congolese government has been wooed of late with carrots from Western donors, most recently a $450-million grant from the World Bank, which resumed lending in June after a nine-year hiatus.
The Bush administration stepped up its involvement in the Sudanese peace talks last September by appointing former senator John Danforth as a special envoy. Mr. Danforth helped mediate side agreements on access for humanitarian relief and a limited cease-fire.
During the five weeks of closed-door peace talks in the Kenyan town of Machakos culminating in last weekend's agreement, the US, Britain, Norway, and Italy attended as observers. But according to officials close to the negotiations the US was quite active, drawing up a draft agreement, leaking it to interested parties, and successfully pressuring the two sides to use it as the basis for the deal.
Under the agreement, the government has agreed not to impose Islamic law on the south. A referendum is to take place six years after a comprehensive peace deal is signed, offering southern Sudanese two clear choices: to continue as part of a united Sudan or form a separate country.
Religious freedom and autonomy for the south were seen to be two of the three biggest obstacles to peace. The third is sharing the wealth of the oil fields, currently under government control although located in the south, which will discussed next month, along with terms for a comprehensive cease-fire.
Although past agreements have fallen apart, Gabriel Alaak Garang, who runs a southern Sudanese nongovernmental organization, says: "With the presence of the international community in the talks ... we feel there could be much pressure to ensure the agreement is implemented."
Carole Collins, senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network, a coalition of Roman Catholic religious orders, says key questions remain to be answered before the two deals can bring peace to Congo or Sudan. She questions "whether the Kinshasa government can actually disarm and demobilize these former genocidaires and former Rwandan Army people who are not necessarily on the territory it controls."
She says many in southern Sudan are unhappy with the leadership of the SPLA because of its abuse of human rights, and are concerned that the deal could entrench them in power.
Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.