As Dr Ali Al-Hajj, the leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party, sat in the presidential office this week to discuss a new peace initiative with the President of the Republic, Omar Al-Bashir, the two men would have been painfully aware that it was the long-standing political differences between their opposing groups that was responsible for the unleashing of a spiral of armed conflict and violence in the Darfur region that has essentially changed the course of Sudanese history.
Al-Hajj is perhaps one of very few Sudanese personalities capable of turning the tide and bringing about a lasting peace to the country. After years of water passing under the proverbial bridge, the reasons for his pivotal significance in the current conflict in Darfur may have been blurred or even lost over the years. However, those who recall the acrimonious split of the Islamic movement and National Salvation government in 1999 between Al Hajj's mentor Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi's faction and the division led by Al-Bashir will recall that it was Ali Al-Hajj from his exile in Germany who became the de facto commander-in-chief and official spokesman of the armed insurrection.
The Darfur conflict ignited a war which the UN says has killed 300,000 people and which the Sudanese government says has been grossly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the international condemnation of the Sudanese government led to the imposition of additional US sanctions for what was described as a 'genocide' of African peoples by the Arab majority. The stark reality is that the dispute between the two men isolated Sudan and eventually led to the indictment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the issuance of arrest warrants against Al-Bashir.
The central issue that intrigues advocates of peace revolves around whether Al-Hajj can find a strategic method to put a stop to the civil war he essentially helped to start and was directly involved in for at least 10 years?
Years after his central performance on the stage of war, Al Hajj's return to the political arena and his offer of peace brokering has been greeted with mix feelings. For some, there is unbridled hope that at least one of the major armed groups might be persuaded to put down their guns or at the very least to make them go silent. After all, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is unabashedly a creation of Al-Hajj's and the late Al-Turabi's party and was led until his death by the charismatic warrior and erstwhile protégé of Al-Turabi, Dr Khalil Ibrahim.
Today, Gibril Ibrahim is the leader of the largest contingent of JEM groups that have suffered from splits and divisions. The hope is that Al-Hajj, a respected elder, in the movement will be able to persuade his "band of merry men" to make peace not war. Such is the promise of peace, there is equally a strong hope that the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Mini Minawi will also be receptive to Al Hajj's intervention. Minawi, an ex-teacher turned warlord, was previously under the umbrella of the government following the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) and had briefly ceased its hostility in response to the initiative in 2006. His return to the theatre of war four years later was blamed on breaches of promises by the Sudanese government.
However, few believe that Al-Hajj has what it takes to rein in the armed groups that are off-shoots of the Sudan's communist party. Their unwillingness to talk to Al-Bashir has not weakened over the years and is based on a fundamental ideological stance which involves the desire to separate religion from state and to see Sudan become a secular nation. Their movement has managed to court international favour, not least the support of the state of Israel, and remains a major thorn in the side of Al-Bashir's Islamic-orientated agenda. Few expect, Al Hajj to make peace or headway with Sudan's Liberation Movement's Abdel-Wahid and the Sudan's People's Liberation Army-North led by veteran communist Yasir Arman.
Nevertheless, Al-Hajj's meeting at the Presidential Palace is an important step. Previous attempts to bring peace has been hindered by the government's insistence that dialogue cannot take place until outlawed armed groups were prepared to renounce violence.
However, that condition does not appear to apply to Al-Hajj's intervention and he seems to have the blessing of the President in the light of the changing relationship with the international community and the hope that US sanctions can be lifted shortly. Al-Bashir can best be described as "extremely keen" to strike a deal. There seems little doubt that Al-Hajj must be able to go armed with the ability to strike a significant and lasting accord. His negotiating hand must contain sweeteners and peace prescription compromises that both sides will be prepared to self-administer.
Veteran politician and leader of the Umma party was among one of the first stops in Al Hajj's charm offensive but Al-Madhi's words to the press gave an indication of how difficult negotiations might prove to be.
"The Sudanese people enjoy a rich tradition of tolerance which makes them ready to achieve a comprehensive peace and democratic transformation, but this initiative would only succeed within a climate of transparency, credibility and freedom," Al-Mahdi said.
The task ahead of Al-Hajj is to say the least "unenviable" with around 30 different armed groups in Darfur. However, few doubt that he is a charismatic figure whose origins from the Western tribes and long standing involvement with rebel groups may work positively in his favour.
It may be too early to predict his likelihood of success but Al-Hajj seems to believe that he has a genuine ability to instigate peace based on the resolution of the issues that were the driving factors for the war. Namely a fair deal for the people of Darfur and the Western region in general, an end to its marginalisation and a recognition of its contribution to the making of Sudan.
If a peace package that would address those grievances can be delivered, the end to the conflict could arrive in Sudan sooner than most peace advocates could ever imagine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.