The object of the agreement is to keep Sudan intact, with the prospect of secession by the south intended to put pressure on the government to uphold its end of the bargain. In a carefully negotiated compromise, an autonomous government is to emerge in the south while new national institutions are created.
But Sudanese refugees interviewed during the ceremony said they believed the peace deal meant that in six years southern Sudan would become an independent nation.
Sudan's first vice president, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, left, and rebel leader John Garang display the signed peace agreement in Nairboi, the Kenyan capital.
(Thomas Mukoya -- Reuters)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Powell Sidesteps Question About Sudan Genocide (The Washington Post, Jan 9, 2005)
Sudanese Leaders, Southern Rebels Finish Peace Deal (The Washington Post, Jan 1, 2005)
Sudan, Southern Rebels Set Date to Sign Pact (The Washington Post, Dec 26, 2004)
Abandoned by Bin Laden (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
A Peace Force With No Power (The Washington Post, Dec 11, 2004)
"The southern Sudan is going to be independent by the will of God," declared the Rev. Tut Nguoth, carrying his 2-year-old son and holding an SPLA rebel flag.
The Rev. James Tor, 32, said he joined the SPLA when he was 12. A year later, he went to Ethiopia for three years of military training. "At 19 years, I joined the fight," he said. At 22, "I returned to church activities."
Tor scoffed at the idea that southern Sudan would remain part of the country. "It was southern Sudan they were fighting for," he said. "They were not fighting for Garang to be vice president or some other thing."
David Mozersky, a Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the agreement "was very positive, but in a sense the hardest part is still ahead." He said the first test would be the drafting of a new constitution during a six-month "pre-interim" period. There are concerns over whether the parties will meet the deadline and whether the negotiations will be inclusive.
Mozersky said that the rebel movement currently lacks the capabilities and institutions to form a government and that the government has "questionable political will" to abide by the agreement. Moreover, he said, implementing the deal "will be made that much more difficult, if not impossible, unless Darfur is resolved."
About 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers and monitors are expected to come to the region, and Powell told Sudanese reporters Saturday that the United States was committed to helping rebuild the south's devastated infrastructure. According to one estimate, 5 million people in the south are served by 86 doctors, 600 nurses and 23 judges.
While the period before the referendum "allows considerable time for political and economic reforms, it will be a tense period during which myriad events could tempt the parties to renege on their commitments," said an advisory report last year for the State Department by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The possibility that this six-year experiment will end in a chaotic, failed state scenario or the creation of two autocratic, one-party states cannot be ruled out."
The conflict between the north and south extends back nearly half a century, since shortly after Sudan's independence in 1956. A 1972 peace accord helped usher in a decade of peace, but a civil war erupted in 1983 after the Sudanese government systematically abrogated the provisions and tried to impose sharia. The discovery of vast oil reserves, mainly in the south, has exacerbated the struggle.
Garang, who studied economics at Grinnell College in Iowa and trained at the infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga., at one point was supported by the pro-Soviet government in Ethiopia while the Sudanese government was supported by the United States during the Cold War. Now, he is set to join the Khartoum government.
Asked Saturday when he would move to Khartoum, Garang said many things had to be sorted out, adding wryly: "I command an army that cannot possibly go to Khartoum with me now."