Extent of Differences and Tension between Sudan and South Sudan

Dr. Mustafa Abdul Aziz Morsi: Extent of Differences and Tension between Sudan and South Sudan

  • 24 April 2012

During talks on South Sudan’s self-determination, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir repeatedly said: “peace found after secession is better than unity maintained through war.” This statement was intended to justify giving South Sudan the right to self-determination. However, secession has not delivered the desired peace for President Bashir even a year after the independence of South Sudan. In fact, the region on the Sudan-South Sudan border has remained volatile and has witnessed several clashes between the two countries—the most serious being the occupation and control of Heglig region by South Sudan. In retaliation, Sudanese forces launched an offensive that destroyed some important petroleum facilities.

Several unresolved issues between the two sides have led to the present crisis. First, the demarcation of border has not been completed, which has driven both the sides to expand their areas by all possible means. This has resulted in several confrontations that could potentially blow up into a large-scale war unless both parties seek to contain the crisis through conciliatory political solutions.

There is a need to study the historical context of the current tension. In fact, Sudan had witnessed a civil war between the north and the south for over two-thirds of the age of the state. The civil war took a heavy toll on the human and material resources of the country, which is still afflicted with wounds of the past. In such a situation, the call by southerners for independence gained wider acceptance. Even a number of Sudanese political leaders thought secession of the then south of the country would rid the nation of a major burden and so they supported the country’s breakup. In fact, the secession generated high hopes across the Sudanese political spectrum, even though the optimism was not well-founded and was soon overwhelmed by the legacy of a troubled past.

In addition, contentious issues have been difficult to resolve. Although it is now more than a year since the South gained its independence (January 9, 2011), the final demarcation of borders between the two states is not yet complete. The main cause for the delay is the presence of important oil wells on the contiguous areas along the border, or regions close to oil-rich areas. In this regard, the big bone of contention has been the Abyei region, which is both oil-rich and is strategically important. For resolving these problems, mutual compromises and a cooperative spirit are needed to arrive at negotiated, conciliatory solutions. Yet, this presupposes the existence of political will and mutual trust on either side. Unfortunately, the foundations for such a process are currently non-existent as both the parties do not seem to have fully comprehended the upshot and consequences of the secession.

The third issue relates to the politicization of oil resources and their use in applying political pressure on the other side. The government of Sudan has imposed a fee on oil from South Sudan transiting its borders, which South Sudan considers to be exorbitant and arbitrary ($32.2 per barrel to cover the fees of delivery/transport and for processing of oil in the refineries of the north). For its part, South Sudan has proposed a fee of only $0.63 per barrel, which is deemed extremely low. The glaring gap in the perception between the two sides on a reasonable fee has brought talks over the issue to a standstill. The fee imposed by Sudan has also drawn criticism from within the country.

The leader of Sudan’s opposition National Umma Party, Sadiq Al-Mahdi, described the fee as ‘irrational,’ and said that it appears like forging a partnership in South Sudan’s oil revenues instead of a fee for refining, transporting and transiting of oil. Even this problem could have been resolved through technical arbitration but Juba started looking askance in a bid to export its oil through other outlets (such as through the port of Mombasa in Kenya).
However, South Sudan seems to have realized that finding an alternate route would take several years and entail huge financial costs. The dispute has also been complicated by the refusal of the South Sudan government to pay its share of Sudan’s external debt in the pre-secession era (estimated at $38 billion). This refusal has further incensed the Sudanese government.

But the government of South Sudan did not stop here. On January 20, 2012, it decided to stop its production of oil exported through Sudan. This put the Sudanese government’s calculations in complete disarray. Khartoum was taken unawares by this decision which defied conventional economic and financial rationale. It should be noted here that oil revenues constitute 98 percent of the Republic of South Sudan’s total revenues and stopping the production of oil for a long period would mean its economic asphyxiation. However, what Khartoum could not understand is that its obstructionist policies toward oil imports from the south—irrespective of the reasons for doing so—will eventually force Juba to resort to the ‘mutual assured destruction’ option. This was recently demonstrated when the supposedly new and inexperienced armed forces of South Sudan occupied the Heglig region and held their ground for days. The ensuing military operations destroyed some petroleum facilities and exposed the role of some international and regional parties in escalating the situation. According to some observers, it is difficult to separate the present Sudan-South Sudan conflict from the ongoing US-Chinese struggle for access to energy resources.

Meanwhile, one can also not detach the current tensions between the two countries from their troubled internal situation. Both regimes have failed to honor their promises of meeting their countries’ immediate and daily concerns. This has led to the strengthening of opposition groups or parties against their respective governments on both sides. Instead of employing oil revenues to promote development projects and improving living conditions of citizens the countries’ use of petroleum resources to apply pressure on each other has led to the loss of revenue. This has complicated the economic and financial crisis in both the countries and has exposed them to increased political, social and economic instability. Thus, the two ‘frenemies’ find themselves in a predicament of their own making, which has allowed greedy external parties to intervene and make the two sides resistant and unresponsive toward finding a middle ground.

In my view, the two parties can no longer continue with the ‘no peace no war’ policy that they have been pursuing. In the absence of conciliatory solutions, the two sides have resorted to military means to settle issues and to reach a new balance of power based on the perceived weakness of the other side. This is a dangerous game, which is easy to get involved in but whose end is difficult to predict. However, it is clear that people of the two countries are going to pay dearly for being dragged into this conflict.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir first announced his readiness to withdraw from Heglig region. He started withdrawal of troops voluntarily even without receiving any response from the Sudanese government to his conditions, such as the UN troop presence on the border and evacuation of Sudan’s forces from the region. Yet, all indicators continue to point to greater escalation of the crisis. Khartoum has characterized South Sudan as an ‘enemy’ and has decided to mobilize its forces to oust the government in Juba. In fact, the Sudanese Parliament has adopted this stance through a decree. On the other hand, South Sudan has likened the Bashir regime to that of Saddam Hussein’s and has issued threats to send its troops to occupy Abyei region.

Unless this crisis is handled with wisdom and in the spirit of compromise, the region will be transformed into an arena for conflicting international and regional interests, whose main objective is to gain control of its petroleum resources. The current crisis has sprung from a misjudgment by the political leaderships of the two countries of the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Both sides believe that they can settle their disputes through a zero-sum game. In reality, the crisis requires conciliatory solutions, mutual compromises and learning of painful lessons from the past. Unless neutral parties urgently intervene to resolve the current predicament, the situation is bound to worsen. This will be detrimental to the interests of both Sudan and South Sudan and will continue to plague them.