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Conflict in Sudan: The logic of war and the current illogical response

23rd April 2012


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The recent escalation in fighting along the ill-defined border between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has led to both an increase in accusations and propaganda from the fighting parties, as well as what appears to be amplified yet anxious responses from the international society. Recent developments stem from what the African Union (AU) has posited and a few hardliners following an uncompromising logic of war in both camps. The need to find a long-lasting solution to the conflicts, both in Sudan and between Sudan and South Sudan, has never been more urgent.

Mounting Pressure on the North


As part of the increasingly frequent military confrontations, both the National Congress Party (NCP), in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM), in Juba, have embarked on recruitment and mobilisation drives among the population, to defend the country against external aggression. In Khartoum, the initiative seems to have been met with less enthusiasm than initially hoped for, perhaps due to a sentiment among the mainstream civilian population that the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have become nothing but a NCP militia. However, it may illustrate that a further division along radical and ideological lines in Sudan is inevitable. In Juba, the drive for recruitment seems to have been met with groups of youth willing to join arms with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

The recruitment and the drive to incense the population maintains a mental as well as practical state of war. It serves as well to diminish more moderate internal voices opposed to further conflict, rather than seeking a non-confrontational discourse. It also allows both NCP and SPLM to keep blaming the other for their ordeals, in particular the ominous financial challenges. Currently, Khartoum is witnessing a serious decline in the value of the Sudanese pound against the US dollar, while Juba is looking desperately for alternative sources of revenue to oil. Oil revenue was the first sacrifice in the current deterioration, when South Sudan decided to suspend its oil exports. As a result of this, both capitals are facing shortages and subsequent queues of citizens scrambling for fuel.


Aside from purely military calculations and the perseverance of the counterpart, the willingness of citizens to endure further hardship, fighting and potential governance challenges may prove an equally daunting test to both ruling parties. This is especially so in Khartoum, where rumors about  pride of previous intifadas remains ever looming, and the notion of a so-called Arab spring in Khartoum remains a threat now that the regime is considered increasingly elitist and unrepresentative of the people despite the NCP’s April 2011 victorious elections. On the other hand, in Juba demonstrators have been in the streets showing their support for President Salva Kiir, initially upon halting oil exports and recently as a reaction to the president playing hardball, when making it clear that he receives no orders from, nor is under the command of international society. This came as a reaction to [UN secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon encouraging the SPLA to withdraw from Panthou (better known as Heglig).

A War of Attrition

At the beginning of April, the SPLA, surprisingly effortlessly, invaded Panthou/Heglig. The area holds the majority of the remaining known oil resources in Sudan and has thus been added to the list of contested areas. While the SPLM claims a cultural and historic relation to the area, the NCP (and the majority of international society) refers to a 2009 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague. However, this ruling only stated that the Panthou/Heglig is not considered part of Abyei (another contested border area). Although the ruling did not consider whether Panthou/Heglig was situated in Sudan or South Sudan, the ruling led many to draw the conclusion that it is part of Sudan.

In the past days, the area was recaptured by Sudanese forces. Although the exact circumstances of the Sudanese forces' recapture of Panthou/Heglig remains uncertain at the time of writing, it does not necessarily spell progress towards peace. If indeed Sudanese forces managed to repel SPLA from Panthou/Heglig, it constitutes a significant moral achievement for the NCP and President Omar al-Bashir and may illustrate the military power balance on the ground. In all likelihood it will harden the NCP stand against the SPLM and the political process regarding the contested areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Juba’s incursion and the subsequent withdrawal of SPLA from Panthou/Heglig may be part of a strategy of diverting Sudanese forces from other theatres of war with the rebel movements in the contested areas; a calculated strategy to gain international and regional sympathy for their cause and ultimately demonstrate respect for international society through a withdrawal; or lastly, and simply, a planned and bold attempt to incapacitate the Sudanese oil industry by damaging the facilities in Panthou/Heglig.

Regardless of the reasons, recent developments are likely to fuel the fire of accusations and perpetuate the ongoing war of attrition. The deciding feature of which is actually securing support: financial and popular support to sustain a cross-border war, and simultaneously regional and international support for such a war after a hard-fought peace.

Past Negotiations

The aspect of attrition and the deep-rooted and resentful nature of the fighting seems, however, only recently to have come to the attention of the international actors involved in the various mediations in Sudan and South Sudan. Many substantial issues of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, have remained unsolved for a long period and both parties have only half-heartedly been negotiating through the AU and Thabo Mbeki.

So far, the negotiations have addressed the outstanding issues independently, and in reality offered the NCP and the SPLM a welcome forum for accusations (much time has been spent on negotiating oil transit fees and, ironically, a non-aggression pact, for example). In reality, negotiations have delivered few results, and most agreements reached have either been broken or nullified, as President Bashir did with the recent four freedoms agreement regarding Sudanese nationals in South Sudan and South Sudanese nationals in Sudan. An often articulated criticism of the AU negotiations and the AU approach has been that they have failed to address the entire complexity of the relations between Sudan and South Sudan and have consequently resulted in an ad-hoc approach, chasing issues as they arise. This has contributed to a peace agreement more comprehensive in name than in practice.

Criticisms regarding the negotiations in the conflict-ridden western province of Darfur highlight a similar disconnect from the root causes of conflict. Here, the approach has been to attempt to unify the various rebel groups, which somehow paradoxically happened in November last year through their own initiative, only to antagonise the NCP, who violently pursued regime change, rather than negotiate. One reason for this would be that, in the past, in Darfur, as for the SPLM, few incentives for negotiations have existed (apart from the secession of South Sudan, which few outside of South Sudan actually thought would materialise). Usually, the outcome of negotiations in the context of conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan have yielded few benefits apart from a presidential post for a rebel leader and integration into national armed forces for the fighters, which does not necessarily appeal to those with a legitimate political agenda. The SPLM in Juba also seems to have lost faith in the Mbeki-led AU initiative and asked for the regional body the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to take the lead on negotiations.

What About Future Negotiations?

The reality in the outlying regions of Sudan supports the notion of increased pressure on the NCP regime in Khartoum with fighting on four fronts (Darfur, Blue Nile state, South Kordofan state and Panthou/Heglig), what appear significant defeats in South Kordofan at the hands of rebel movements; the ease with which the SPLA initially captured the Panthou/Heglig oilfields; and increased voices of a possible intifada in Khartoum. It led Bashir to attempt to deflect attention by announcing that the NCP will work towards regime change in Juba in response to the rising pressure. It is in this light of authentic existential threats to both regimes, that the AU, and international society in general, must frame their adapted future approach to Sudan and South Sudan. Looking for negotiated solutions to individual issues will not resolve these existential issues. Rather than the past and present ad-hoc approach, there needs to be a more comprehensive modus operandi, with greater participation and buy-in from the entire international community. The frustration and challenges of the AU and United Nations (UN) are visible and highlighted by the fact that, currently, there are several separate peacekeeping missions at work in Sudan and South Sudan (UNAMID in Darfur, UNMISS in South Sudan and a third more unilateral AU-mandated Ethiopian force in Abyei), all without a mandate to operate in the contested areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. This complicates the coordination aspect, as well as pivotal issues such as protection of civilians. So far, and apart from a multitude of calls for cessation of hostilities, the only proposal has been potential sanctions through the UN Security Council, directed at both parties. This only highlights the desperation and the related perception of lack of options available among the main international actors.

An Alternative Response

Perhaps it is time to mobilise the parties which facilitated and sponsored the CPA, which through a concerted effort managed to carve out an historic deal. Rather than ad-hoc, issue-specific and snap-shot negotiations, a more bold approach is needed that conquers the issues that led to the abandonment of the CPA and its stalemate. This should include a critical look at the responsibility for the current situation and apply pressure to both parties based on a recognition of history beyond the recent military developments. In addition, it ought to include deployment of military observers to the contested areas, further empowerment and a critical look at the role so far played by the peacekeeping missions in protecting civilians and documenting atrocities and violations of international law, and should ultimately take into account the core of the current hostilities. The central part of the current hostilities are about much more than just oil and border territories. They are closely associated with national governance, marginalisation and scars from the previous civil wars in Sudan.

This reality should inform a more earnest acknowledgement of the political issues of marginalisation, ethnic domination and local grievances that have driven both past and present conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan. In practice, the previous calls for unconditional withdrawal of SPLA troops from Panthou/Heglig should be followed by an equally unconditional withdrawal of Sudanese forces from Abyei. Furthermore, concerted and coordinated efforts to reinstate the outstanding popular consultations for the contested areas of Blue Nile state and South Kordofan state, along with the cancelled referendum in Abyei, will be central. Only through a far more resolute and coordinated approach, including a firm commitment to wider governance issues beyond the border areas and the current fighting, will there be a chance to avoid all-out war between the parties with potential serious regional ramifications or the current, but similarly devastating, war of attrition.

Written by Jens W Pedersen (MSc Humanitarian Studies)


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