The Fractious Pair of Sudans

The South Sudanese president Salva Kiir told parliament back in January that the government had “unanimously decided that all oil operations in South Sudan should be halted with immediate effect and no crude oil belonging to South Sudan shall flow through the pipelines on the territory of the Republic of Sudan.” This was a response to Khartoum’s seizure of South Sudanese oil, and brought the conflict between the states over oil revenue distribution to a head.
Oil is vital to the young republic, which has been independent since July last year: It provides 98% of the government’s income. A prolonged stoppage in production would threaten the state’s already fragile infrastructure, and end hopes of stability in the region after decades of civil war.
The Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was among the international leaders who attended South Sudan’s independence celebrations last year in the new state’s capital, Juba. His presence signified that Khartoum finally recognised partition, after much prevarication. But there were still disagreements over the distribution of oil revenue and public debt, and the final boundary between the states. The organisation of regional security was also not finalised. Oil in common
Oil is a vital source of currency and fiscal revenue for both Sudans; they are dependent on each other, since one controls the reserves, the other the export infrastructure. If Khartoum does not agree on oil transit and refining rights, they both face potential economic disaster.
From August 2010 negotiators met regularly in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for long, unsuccessful talks. Relations steadily worsened because of internal divisions among the ruling elites, who were competing with each other and unable to deal with local conflicts in their border areas.
The crisis began with the Sudanese army’s invasion of the disputed Abyei region in May 2011, two months before the south’s official independence. The status of this border region (of minimal strategic importance) was meant to have been agreed to by a local referendum, and organised in parallel with the referendum on independence. But Khartoum prevented the referendum and seized the entire territory. The fighting between the armies was the worst since the 2005 peace agreement. The message is clear: The north is ready to use its military superiority to dominate the negotiations. A new civil war
The Sudanese army turned against any members of the SPLM/A (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army), the former rebel movement in power in the south) on its territory -- 6,000 in the northern state of South Kordofan and 4,100 in Blue Nile, both bordering South Sudan. Their populations, black African rather than Arab, are culturally and politically closer to the south.
The Sudanese army and its allied militias launched a massive offensive against armed and unarmed members of the SPLM/A in South Kordofan on 5 June 2011 and on 1 September the fighting spread to Blue Nile. The leader of SPLM/A North (SPLM/A-N), Malik Agar, went underground after his home was raided, and called for the overthrow of the regime in Khartoum: on 8 September he announced that his movement was splitting from the SPLM/A in power in Juba. A new civil war had begun.
Khartoum and Juba have continued to negotiate, while also beginning an economic war. Since May last year, Sudan has imposed restrictions on cross border trade with the south, where business relies heavily on imports from the north. Last July both governments circulated new currencies without consulting each other. Uncertainty provoked by the fiscal crisis and tension has caused the exchange rate to fluctuate, forcing the central banks of both states to draw on their already weak foreign exchange reserves to avoid massive devaluation.
Each side is using force, direct or indirect, to try to make the other give way. The north gives logistical and military support to rebel groups fighting against the South Sudanese government, and has bombed its territory several times since November 2011.
The government in Juba has difficulty maintaining the fiction that it is not connected to SPLM/A-N rebels. They use South Sudan as a support base, as do the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), some of whose forces have now left Darfur for South Kordofan. This March, the southern army, the JEM and the SPLM/A-N launched a joint offensive against Heglig, an oil field on the border, revealing an unprecedented level of coordination. Khartoum ouster?
The SPLM/A-N and the Darfur rebel groups, now allied in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), want a change of regime in Khartoum. South Sudan’s growing involvement with the SRF and the intransigence of southern negotiators, particularly Pagan Amum (who is close to SPLM/A-N leaders), suggest that part of the political elite in Juba has been won over to this objective.
Western countries and China hope that a bilateral agreement on oil transit rights will defuse the situation and prevent a new North-South war; but the major powers have been unable to impose a compromise. Washington has limited room for manoeuvre because of its historic support for the South and antagonism towards the North, and US public hostility towards Khartoum. The focus by the Congress and the US media on human rights violations by the Sudanese army in South Kordofan has made it impossible for President Barack Obama’s administration to offer Sudan even partial lifting of US sanctions in exchange for peace with the South. These sanctions were imposed in 1997 and 2006 in response to Sudan’s support for terrorism, and the repression in Darfur. So after years of being lenient with the South, Washington is now striving to put pressure on Juba. On 2 May it got the UN Security Council to pass a resolution threatening sanctions on both Sudans. China’s balancing act
It is not clear how much influence China has, despite its close links with all the protagonists: It is a major player in Sudan’s oil sector, which it helped Khartoum develop during the civil war, and has also managed to get closer to Juba since 2008. But its obvious efforts at mediation have not got anywhere. Chinese diplomats complain about their powerlessness, to their western counterparts. As relations get more embittered between the two Sudans, Beijing’s balancing act gets more difficult. On the other hand, Juba knows it can count on Israel, which supported the southern rebellion from 1955.
There are still many local obstacles to an agreement. Two partial compromises -- one on integrating the SPLM/A-N into Sudanese politics, put forward in June 2011, and the other on the status of Sudanese and South Sudanese citizens on each other’s territory, in February 2012 -- are long dead. The first, negotiated between Nafi Ali Nafi, al-Bashir’s right hand man, and Agar of SPLM/A-N, was denounced by the Sudanese president three days after it was signed. The second was made obsolete by clashes on the border that many suspect were orchestrated jointly by SPLM/A-N and a faction of South Sudan’s army, to prevent rapprochement between the north and south.
There is no guarantee that an agreement on oil rights will be enough to calm the situation. It would probably not end the violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the causes of which are local. The border will stay unstable. Timeline
1 January 1956: Sudan gains independence after a rebellion in the south in August 1955.
October 1964: Popular insurrection ends the military regime established in 1958.
25 May 1969: Coup led by Gaafar al-Nimeiry.
March 1972: Agreements on autonomy for the south signed in Addis Ababa with the rebels.
1983: Al-Nimeiry’s regime decides to apply sharia law. A new rebellion starts in the south, led by John Garang and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
April 1985: Popular revolt and end of the military dictatorship.
30 June 1989: Islamist army officers led by Omar al-Bashir seize power. The war with the south intensifies.
9 January 2005: Peace agreement signed with the SPLM/A, making provision for a referendum on self-determination for the south in five years.
2011: In January, the population of the south vote overwhelmingly in favour of independence, which is proclaimed on 9 July. Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is a specialist on the Sudans with an international human rights organisation; he writes here in a personal capacity. Translated by Stephanie Irvin Copyright © 2012 Le Monde diplomatique - distributed by Agence Global