Just days before South Sudan becomes the world's newest country on July 9, forces loyal to the semiautonomous region's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) have been sucked into clashes with troops loyal to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted at the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
On Tuesday, though, Mr. Bashir's Islamist-dominated Northern government signed a peace pact with with the SPLM's northern branch.
The agreement fell short of calling for a cease-fire in the border state of South Kordofan – the scene of heavy recent fighting that security experts say could reignite the decades-long civil war that killed some 2 million people before it ended in 2005 – but it does lay out a framework for shared governance of tumultuous border areas.
There is no shortage of skepticism as to whether such a pact will bring peace to the area, but it builds off of earlier efforts, including trips to Indonesia's war-torn Aceh Province and Kenya to study ways to resolve entrenched conflict.
Given the current fighting, it's easy to dismiss the US-funded trips as an abysmal failure. But the participants in the innovative effort to help conflict-ridden countries learn from each other say they feel as if they were participating in the one last chance to find peace – and that they very nearly achieved it.
"I'm glad we did that trip, and I know we are not going to duplicate what happened in Aceh here in Sudan; we are going to decide our own process," says Ahmed Saeed, a local SPLM parliamentarian who participated in the trips. "But despite this, this is an opportunity to transform our government system. If we do it here in South Kordofan, we can help to transform the rest of Sudan."
The hopefulness of that statement seemed irreparably lost as Sudanese Army planes bombed Mr. Saeed's SPLM comrades in the mountains around South Kordofan's capital, Kadugli, a couple weeks ago. But it's emblematic of the months of discussions and frenetic travel by senior local leaders of both parties.
These trips offer a model for future peacemaking.
Lessons from abroad
From the moment Nero Philip, an SPLM member from Kadugli, touched down in the Acehnese capital of Banda in 2009, he felt an odd camaraderie with the Indonesian rebels who had fought for decades for independence. Fighting between rebels and the government ended only after the December 2004 tsunami destroyed Banda, and the Army's and rebels' ability to fight. After a round of popular consultations – akin to a referendum – both sides agreed that Aceh would get autonomy over its internal affairs while remaining under the Indonesian flag.
Most impressive to Mr. Philip is Aceh's ability to negotiate 70 percent of the oil and gas in the area, and 20 percent of the natural resources for the next 20 years, an inspiration for South Kordofan, which has rich oil resources itself. "That, for us, was a great achievement," says Philip.
Even more inspiring, says SPLM parliamentarian Saeed, was the way civil society forced former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi to allow multiparty elections. Mr. Moi didn't give in easily, but civil society continued to put pressure on the president. In 2002, Moi was voted out by an alliance of opposition leaders.
Missing in Sudan: civil society
South Kordofan does not have the strong society that Aceh and Kenya possess, says Saeed, but unless citizens take an active role in decisionmaking, they will always be subjected to the decisions of politicians. "We have to be prepared to pay the price for our freedom."
Yet for Ibrahim Balandia, the speaker of South Kordofan's state assembly and an NCP participant in the trips, the lessons of Aceh and Kenya are limited because of the weakness of an educated and organized civil society in his state. In the end, he said, "The body which has the right to speak for the people is the elected assembly. If there are gaps to be filled from the [2005 peace deal], the people should tell us, and that gap will be filled."
This might seem intransigent, yet Mr. Balandia is one of the few NCP leaders willing to discuss the matter of popular consultations, says the UN's Ahmed Sabiel. Compared with the SPLM and NCP hard-liners who hadn't taken the trip, participants like Saeed and Balandia were much closer together in their mind-set; they were negotiating while their colleagues were preparing for war.
"At the end of this trip, the thinking between the SPLM participants and the NCP participants wasn't that far apart," says Mr. Sabiel. "But when they took these ideas to their parties, they didn't give attention to what their colleagues had learned."