Over the last month Sudan and South Sudan have been juggling with the idea of a full fledged war, something that neither country really wants nor can afford. Yet starting skirmishes along the border and escalating the war of statements, not always in a completely conscious way, seemed to both parties the easiest way to break the stalemate of the peace process. The current impasse originates from the partial implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 and from the status quo created by the secession of the South in 2011. One of the main issues still left on the table is the definition of an agreed border.
The other big stumbling block on the path of a sustainable regional settlement is the oil issue, topping the agendas of Khartoum and Juba since the very beginning of the CPA talks and beyond. Since last January the oil dispute further degenerated following the decision of South Sudan to stop the extraction activities in its territory to avoid using the oil pipeline that runs through the north of Sudan to reach the Red Sea. Beside charging excessive transit fees for the use of the pipeline, up to 35$ per barrel (20 times the price that independent experts suggest), Khartoum had also allegedly built a tie-in pipeline illegally siphoning part of the South Sudanese oil[i]. In addition, in January the crisis took another step down the road of war when 4 tankers carrying South Sudanese oil were held in Port Sudan by Sudanese authorities[ii].
Unsurprisingly the episode that sparked off the current crisis, also originating from oil disputes, is the initiative of the SPLA – South Sudanese armed forces that seized the border-area oilfield of Heglig and held it for 10 days before withdrawing under international pressure and SAF – Sudan Armed Forces’ fire[iii]. The reasons behind the South Sudanese move on Heglig are not self evident. Given the strategic importance of the site for Khartoum, a strong counter attack to regain the control of the oil infrastructures was surely expected. It is more likely that the SPLA tried to gain and keep control of the site in an attempt to create a de facto situation similar to the one of Abyei, the contested region occupied by the SAF just before South Sudan’s secession, in order to use it as a negotiating chip at a later stage. Rumors in Juba are also suggesting that the operation has not been agreed with the government and that President Kiir was as surprised as his northern counterpart when he learned about it[iv]. Should this be the case it would be understandable that Juba claimed ownership of the decision rather than showing cracks in its chain of command. In any case the escalation that followed is probably in the best interest of South Sudan that is consistently trying to internationalize the ongoing low intensity conflict and leverage the new momentum to address some of the outstanding issues like the establishment of an agreed and definitive border between the two states.
South Sudan knows that it can count on a broader international support than Sudan, and it also has the strong support of other regional powers like Uganda and Kenya. The first has already stated very clearly that it will support Juba in case of a full scale attack from Sudan. Relations between Uganda and Sudan are already tense after Kampala accused the government of Sudan of supporting Joseph Kony’s LRA[v]. Kenya, with milder tones expressed its concern over the situation but it is clear that it would like to preserve the stability of South Sudan. South Sudan is seen as a strategic economic partner due to President Kiir’s intention of building an oil pipeline through Kenya alternative to the one that runs through the north of Sudan. The international heavyweight in this dispute though is China, the key actor in the region given the strong economic and political ties with both countries. Beijing is trying to use its influence to bring the crisis under control and avoid the burst of an all out conflict. Beside being what the international community is asking for, a normalization of the relations between the two states is also in China’s own interest, so to ensure the stability of a region where Chinese enterprises heavily invested, without having to take sides between the two countries.
In fact, although Beijing has historically supported the instances of Khartoum, the government of Hu Jintao is very carefully extending its favour to the newly born state of South Sudan that from its independence inherited some 75% of the total oil production of the once united Sudan[vi]. Confirming the balanced diplomatic profile that China is keeping on this crisis, the recent visit of President Kiir in Beijing, taking place right in the middle of the border tensions with Sudan, only provided the South Sudanese delegation with pledges of humanitarian and financial aid, without ensuring support for the construction of the strategic alternative pipeline[vii].
This complex scenario is sometimes simplistically portrayed as a clash between the Arab north and the Christian south. This explanation however ignores a number of internal rebellions that are taking place in the region, highlighting the flaws of the 2005 CPA and paradoxically providing the two states with an easy excuse to keep the counterpart under pressure while affirming their support to negotiated solutions. Both Juba and Khartoum support proxy wars, such as in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions, because they are the most cost and risk efficient tools in this moment to destabilize the respective “enemy”. On the other hand internal instability gives room for manoeuvre to the hardliners in the government and the army that according to UN diplomatic sources are seeing their influence growing in both countries[viii]. So far their pressure only produced an escalation in the tones of the confrontation with semi war declarations issued from both sides and a limited number of armed forces attacks like in the case of the Sudanese bombings of South Sudan’s territory[ix]. These circumstances did not lead to the explosion of a full war mostly because of the common understanding that none of the two parties is in a position to face a conflict, least of all South Sudan that does not even have a military aviation.
In the unlikely case of a new war between Sudan and South Sudan the consequences would be grave for many reasons. The spark could potentially ignite a more vast regional conflict with uncertain consequences. The use of resources to support the army, together with the probable imposition of UN sanctions, would disrupt the extremely fragile economies of the two states. Sudan is already seriously damaged by the sudden loss of oil revenues due to the secession of the South. South Sudan continues to lose income because of the decision to stop oil extraction until the pipeline issue has been addressed.
The worst case scenario though seems to be the one looming for the population of the two countries and in particular for the numerous minorities. The risk of mass expulsions or even acts of ethnic cleansing is high and it would come as a terrible joke of destiny after all the progress made on an agreement on the citizenship that was ready to be signed by the two countries only one month ago granting the freedom of movement and work between the two states for all the Sudanese and South Sudanese citizens[x]. Unfortunately for the half million South Sudanese trapped in the north by the provisional border, and the other minorities living near the border and in peripheral areas, the possibility of a humanitarian emergency is very likely – and in some cases already a reality – even without the explosion of a new war.
[i] Beating the Drums of War and the Latest Oil Conflict in Africa
[ii] Reuters – Sudan frees South Sudan’s oil tankers; dispute continues
[iii] The Economist – Close to the brink
[iv] The Guardian – The $7bn stumbling block to peace between Sudan and South Sudan http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/apr/27/stumbling-block-peace-sudan-south-sudan
[v] Xinhua News Agency – Uganda warns Sudan over threats to attack South Sudan
[vi] BBC – South Sudan’s oil production slumps since independence
[vii] MISNA – La Cina promette aiuto al Sud ma sull’oleodotto non firma
[viii] Security Council Report – May 2012 http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/site/c.glKWLeMTIsG/b.8075191/k.1CBE/May_2012brSudan_and_South_Sudan.htm
[ix] France24 – Sudan ‘bombing’ South in defiance of UN resolution
[x] BBC – Sudan and South Sudan leaders agree basic freedoms