Sudan talks face uphill battle for peace despite wealth-sharing deal

By Mohamed Ali Saeed

Jan 6 (AFP)

Sudan's government and the main southern rebel group prepared Tuesday to sign a wealth-sharing deal after weeks of hard bargaining but progress on a definitive end to the 20-year civil war is still halting.

Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and the leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), John Garang, are expected to sign the document on Wednesday, officials from both sides said, but talks on thornier issues including power-sharing could run into weeks.

After more than a month of tortuous negotiations in the Kenyan town of Naivasha, the two sides struck a surprise deal late Monday on a 50-50 split of non-oil revenue such as taxes and also agreed on a joint central bank and shared oil revenue, SPLA spokesman Yasser Arman said.

The wealth-sharing deal was a key component of talks aimed at ending Sudan's war, the longest-running civil conflict on the African continent which has pitted the south, where most observe traditional African religions or Christianity, against the wealthier Muslim, Arabised north.

In 2002, Khartoum and the SPLA struck a breakthrough accord granting the south the right to self-determination after a six-year transition period.

But the two sides failed to conclude a comprehensive peace deal by the end of 2003 in line with a self-imposed deadline and still have to hammer out accords on a number of crucial outstanding issues.

The conflict, which has been fuelled and complicated by the discovery of vast oil reserves, has claimed at least 1.5 million lives and displaced an estimated four million people.

"Now the principals will deal with the remaining issues," said a source close to the government delegation in Naivasha, referring to power-sharing and the status of three contested regions of Sudan.

The bulk of the wealth split was settled late last month, when it was agreed that the SPLA and the government would receive equal shares of revenue from the country's 300,000 barrels a day of oil.

Government delegate Amin Hassan Omar was quoted by newspapers in Khartoum as saying that discussions would begin on power-sharing on Tuesday, adding that he estimated it would be "a few weeks" before a final peace deal is struck.

Observers say the government and rebels may easily reach agreement on the top political posts, but could get stuck on the division of senior posts in executive, legislative, diplomatic and judicial arms.

It has been provisionally agreed that Omar al-Beshir will remain president throughout the six-year period, with Garang taking over as vice-president while Taha is to be given the new post of prime minister, reports say.

But senior Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) official Ali Mahmoud Hassanain told AFP on Tuesday that the opposition would be against such proposals, instead supporting the creation of a state council representing different regions.

On the other sticking points, negotiators may be able to agree on the status of the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile State but could face difficulties in addressing the dispute over Abyei whose inhabitants are predominantly members of the southern Dinka tribe and also include several SPLA leaders.

The SPLA claims those areas although they are not geographically part of the south, according to boundaries left over by the country's former British rulers in 1956.