Hopes are high that Sudan’s western Darfur region is on the road to peace. The African Union announced on May 5 that an agreement to end the war in Darfur was signed between the Sudanese government and the Mani Arkoi Minawi faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement, the largest by far of the three Darfuri rebel groups.

Present for the signing in the Nigerian capital of Abuja were host President Olusegu Obasanjo and representatives of many African, Arab and other countries.

The agreement’s main features are the following:

• A referendum within six months on Darfur’s future status.

• Sudan agrees to disarm and neutralize the Janjaweed militias by mid-October 2006.

• Rebel representation in the Sudanese government.

• Creation of a fund for reconstruction of Darfur.

• Merging of rebel troops into the Sudanese Army.

• Repatriation of refugees, Darfur-wide dialog and reconciliation of all parties to resolve issues of land ownership and nomadic migration.

• Enlarging the African Union’s 7,800 soldier peacekeeping force to an “international” force of between 10,000 and 15,000, and giving them the power to use force in defending civilians.

The Sudanese government has been especially resistant to the introduction of international troops, and many doubt a small increase in peacekeepers will make a difference if the will to make peace is lacking. Especially troubling are reports that rebels and militias alike have been splintering into a mishmash of warlords and bandits preying on what’s left of the civilian population and robbing humanitarian aid organizations.

The two other rebel groups participating in the negotiations have until May 15 to sign on. One is a Sudanese Liberation Movement breakaway called the Al-Nur faction, after its leader Abdel Wahed Mohamed Al-Nur. The Al-Nur faction is based within the Fur ethnic group, and the split seems to have occurred along ethnic lines. However, Al-Nur now seems to have been deserted by all his top officers, who have been speaking up in favor of the peace agreement.

The third faction is the small Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim. The JEM is a Pan-Arabic party associated with Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi, the architect of Sudan’s ultra-fundamentalist Islamist government of the 1990s which sheltered Osama Bin Laden. The JEM has been holding out for an autonomous Darfuri government.

The Mani Arkoi Minawi faction is strongest among the Massalit ethnic group and its army controls most of North Darfur state and a stronghold near the South Darfur state capital of Nyala. It claims military control of 80 percent of Darfur’s three states. One of the factors which brought it to the table was fear that Sudan would switch from a policy of relying on Janjaweed Arab militias to an all-out assault by conventional military troops.