For the last seven years, Sudan has intermittently been at the centre of world attention for all the worst reasons – as the scene of large-scale ethnic cleansing in the western Darfur region, while an unrelated, but often no less vicious, separatist conflict raged in the South.
Recently, there have been signs of hope. The government has conceded, in theory, that the South should have a right to go its own way in a referendum in 2011. Meanwhile, over the past few days, an accommodation has been reached between Khartoum and the largest rebel group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, known as the Jem. Under a ceasefire agreement signed at the weekend, the government annulled the death sentences on about a hundred Jem prisoners while the rebels pledged to cease military operations. The two sides also agreed to discuss refugee returns and elections in Darfur.
Ceasefires in such conflicts often come and go without anyone noticing change on the ground. In the case of the war in the South, quarrels over oil assets are likely to bedevil any future agreement on state borders. The problem in Darfur is that the Jem is not the only rebel group and one of its main rivals, the Sudan Liberation Army, wants nothing to do with the ceasefire.
Nevertheless, there is still cause for optimism about Sudan, as realisation grows on all sides that outright military victory is impossible and the future must lie in pragmatic adjustment. It was right that the disaster in Sudan stirred the world's conscience and prompted demands for intervention. But in retrospect it may be that the West reacted simplistically and was too ready to portray complex conflicts in black-and-white terms. This partiality may have made matters worse, encouraging intransigence on all sides and fissiparous tendencies among the rebels. Significantly, the new ceasefire has come about as a result of internal dynamics and without foreign mediation.
Sudan's wars may not be over but they seem to be winding down, if only as a result of the exhaustion of all the parties. It may be that only messy and imperfect compromises bring an end to this suffering. But the peoples of Sudan deserve the chance of peace, however it is reached.