south sudan
An SPLA soldier gestures as he sits in a vehicle in Juba, Dec. 21, 2013. Reuters

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- After 20 days of talks, delegations representing both sides of the conflict in South Sudan have agreed upon a cessation of hostilities, to take place within 24 hours. This could mean an end to violence that has already killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. It also marks the beginning of a two-week hiatus from a fraught negotiating process that has frustrated mediators, diplomats and South Sudanese observers.

For three weeks, the lobby of Addis Ababa's Sheraton hotel has been buzzing with journalists, delegation members and international dignitaries. At stake was the fate of South Sudan, the world's youngest country, which descended into bloody turmoil on Dec. 15 following clashes at a barracks in the capital city of Juba. The government blamed the outburst on a coup attempt, but the opposition has accused the administration of distorting the facts and massacring innocent civilians. The conflict quickly took an ethnic turn, pitting members of the Dinka group – whose members are largely, though not entirely, loyal to President Salva Kiir – against the Nuer, many of whom support former Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked by Kiir in July.

As fighting raged in South Sudan, delegations representing both sides of the dispute flew to Addis Ababa to have face-to-face talks mediated by members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, an East African bloc of eight countries. The talks' immediate goal was to effect a cessation of hostilities, but the process was bogged down by several thorny issues. Most intractable was the question of the detainees – 11 high-level dissenters who were jailed by the government at the beginning of the conflict. The opposition delegates insisted on their release, while the government argued that it would be unconstitutional to free them immediately. Another big issue was the presence of Ugandan troops fighting on behalf of Kiir's administration; rebels argued that the intrusion was propping up an undemocratic government and called for them to desist.

The newly signed agreements do not settle these disputes unequivocally. The cessation agreement only implies that the Ugandan forces will stop military activities, since both sides must lay down arms “in the theater of operations.” The agreement regarding the detainees does nothing to guarantee their release, instead noting that “IGAD and the partners of IGAD are firmly committed to undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees,” and that “the parties... welcome the spirit of an all-inclusive dialogue to resolve the issues connected with the current crisis in the country.”

Despite the hazy language, delegation heads and mediators described Thursday's breakthrough in glowing terms. “The signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement and the agreement on the question of detainees today is indeed a significant step forward in the negotiation process,” said Tedros Adhanom, IGAD council chair and Ethiopia's foreign minister.

But not everyone has been so sanguine over the course of the discussions. As blood continued to spill in South Sudan during these past three weeks, there were constant rumors that the negotiations had stalled -- something mediators and delegates consistently denied. Peace talks are, they insisted, a complicated business, necessitating preliminary talks on terms of reference and the roles of participants. But even once those details were settled, discussions were repeatedly put on hold by mediators' trips to meet with Kiir and Machar in South Sudan.

Even the long-awaited Thursday signing ceremony didn't go smoothly. Originally scheduled for 3:00 p.m., it did not begin in earnest until well after sunset. Delegates, ambassadors and journalists had gathered in an overcrowded conference room at the Sheraton around 5 p.m., but an hour later it became clear that the briefing would take place in a larger venue. Then came a waiting period at an outside patio while hotel staff wheeled tables and stacks of chairs from one room to the other, deftly navigating throngs of impatient attendees. The doors opened once again, but next came a seating snafu, with one facilitator angrily berating some members of the crowd for taking seats that belonged to South Sudanese observers. It was about 7 p.m. when the speeches finally began, though many found the conference room too crowded for comfort.

Ahead of the formal signing, leaders of both delegations seized the opportunity to air their grievances. Government delegation leader Nhial Deng Nhial blamed the rebels for failing to adhere to an IGAD communique released on December 27, adding that “what really worries us in terms of the agreement on the cessation of hostilities is the capacity of the rebel group, given that the bulk of the rebel army is made up of civilians who are not subject to military discipline. An order to stop fighting may not be obeyed, and this will certainly make a mockery of the agreement.”

But opposition delegation members took issue with the government's line, arguing that even the word “rebel” is inaccurate since both sides are of the same political party, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement. Opposition leader Taban Deng Gai, who said his side's commitment to the agreement was “unequivocal,” argued that the conflict began due to Kiir's refusal to allow members of the SPLM to contest his rule. He added that the opposition did not initiate violence in Juba with goal of ousting Kiir. “Our core goal has always been the democratization of the political process.. and peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

Envoys from the international community -- representing the UN as well as major aid donors to South Sudan like the European Union and the United States -- have supported the opposition's calls for the release of the detainees. During the signing ceremony, government delegates sat stone-faced while opposition delegates applauded EU Representative Alexander Rondos' assertion that forthcoming talks “must include all who can contribute to the political debate, including those who are currently detained.”

That issue will remain a divisive one in weeks to come. In the meantime, there is plenty of work to do on the rehabilitation of displaced persons in South Sudan, the prosecution of human rights violators, the monitoring mechanisms for a ceasefire and the facilitation a long-term political solution. Though the Addis negotiations have succeeded in achieving ceasefire on paper, both sides acknowledge that this is only one milestone on a very long road to sustainable peace.