To cries of "God is great" in Arabic and "Hallelujah," the Islamic government of Sudan signed a peace agreement on Sunday with a Christian rebel group in the south that called for an end to one of Africa's fiercest and longest-running civil wars.
Several thousand onlookers _ most of them Sudanese refugees who had known nothing but war in their homeland _ danced with glee at a downtown sports arena as Sudan's vice president, Ali Osman Taha, and the rebel leader, John Garang, initialed the agreement, which had been years in the making.
The celebration was tempered by the fact that the war continued in other parts of Sudan. The western Darfur region, involving different rebels, was not covered under the agreement.
The pact calls for a six-year transition period to ease the combatants toward peace. It is fraught with potential complications, but if it works, it could help bring development to one of the world's most destitute and disease-ridden regions.
Southern Sudan has been living in a time warp. Modern warplanes fly overhead, raining down bombs, but the people live in squalor, many without schools, roads or health care.
"We're tired of running and suffering and dying," said Bulkuer Malyok, a chief from southern Sudan who came to Nairobi for the signing.
The agreement calls for merging fighting forces, sharing oil wealth and dividing political offices between northerners and southerners. Garang will become a vice president, reporting to President Omar Hassan el-Bashir, who seized power in a coup in 1989.
Some 2-million people have died in the decades of war, from starvation and disease as well as from bullets and bombs. Previous negotiations have gone nowhere, and this round of talks, which traces its origins back to 1997, often had been close to collapse.
Putting former foes together in the same government has been tried elsewhere in Africa with mixed results. Rwanda erupted into genocide in 1994 after a peace deal between the Hutu and the Tutsi failed to win full Hutu support. Congo signed a peace agreement in 1999, but true peace remains elusive. In Burundi, a power-sharing government has yet to win over all the rebel factions wreaking havoc there. The lesson in all those cases has been that peace is a process, often a long one full of setbacks.
"It's a big day, but I'm not euphoric," said John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President Bush's former special envoy to Sudan. "It's like climbing Mount Everest. You reach one pinnacle, and there are ranges of mountains behind."
Southerners will be given some autonomy in the coming years and must create a functioning government from scratch. Armies must be merged. Mines must be removed. Decisions must be made by compromise instead of issued by fiat from Khartoum.
The agreement calls for a referendum in six years among southerners to determine whether they wish to remain part of a unified Sudan. Few expect Sudan's government to allow a split to occur, but the vote is considered a major incentive for inclusive rule in the years ahead.
There are many symbolic elements in the agreement aimed at unifying the country. Both English, which is widely spoken in the south, and Arabic, the predominant language of the north, will be considered official languages. New paper money will be issued with a design reflecting the country's diversity. A dual banking system is to be set up.
The agreement calls for Islamic law to apply only in the north. Its application to Christian and animist southerners helped set off the fighting.
Revenue from Sudan's oil deposits in the south will be divided evenly between north and south.