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The decision by the South Sudanese Government to shut down oil production in January 2012 proved to be the spark that has again ignited armed confrontation between the two new neighbours. In April, south Sudanese forces captured the Helgig oilfield, representing almost half of the north’s reserves. A declaration of war was subsequently made by Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and the border areas were again witness to several air raids, which has led to the displacement of thousands of civilians.
In response to the crisis, the African Union sent a high-level delegation, led by former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, to meet with both Governments, in a bid to encourage them to refrain from major hostilities. Further talks are now underway to discuss the implementation of a 2 May United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution and an African Union Resolution that underlines it. The fighting has now largely subsided, but tensions still remain. And given that neither side has begun to redeploy their military, the potential for another round of serious armed conflict would seem as high as ever.
There are a number of factors that help explain why relations between the two nations have deteriorated since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005. This report will detail some of these underlining reasons for the ongoing tensions and will show how short term thinking and a failure to deal with what may appear to be petty grievances could make an all out war inevitable.
A long-standing conflict
Since the days of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium between 1899 and 1956, Sudan had been divided between north and south. The north, predominantly Arab and Muslim, was once referred to by French colonialists as the ‘useful country’, where what resources were available were concentrated and where a measure of development was taking place. In contrast, the south was seen as a remote region, without significant resources, and which was “best left to its own devices and those of the missionaries.”(2) Although administered by Britain for the most of the first half of the 20th century as separate entities, the 1947 Juba conference effectively combined the two to form one state in 1956. However, from the start, political rule in Sudan was characterised by a consistent domination from the centre (Khartoum) over what became increasingly marginalised peripheries.(3) The disproportionate accumulation of power and resources in the north meant that rebellion from different groups was always inevitable, especially given the major ethnic and religious differences to be found across the country.
The first Sudanese civil war, which began just before Sudan became independent in 1956, was motivated by a strong sense from southern leaders that Khartoum was backing away from its commitment to create a federal Government that would have given the south substantial autonomy. However, the southern secessionist movement was poorly armed, ill-organised and crippled by internal ethnic divisions, which the north was able to exploit. Eventually, but after massive bloodletting on both sides, an agreement was reached to bring an end to the conflict, with the signing of the Addis Ababa Accord in 1972 that granted the south a level of autonomy.
But the Addis Ababa Accord had little or no support from the main opposition parties in Khartoum. Then leader, Gaffar Muhammed, concluded that their opposition was more threatening to his regime than the lack of support from the south. What tipped the scales against the Accord was the discovery of oil in the south in 1979. After that it was only a matter of time before war broke out, with the north determined to reassert its authority by abolishing the south’s elected assembly. A second civil war began when southern soldiers mutinied rather than follow orders, transferring them to the north.
Sudan’s second civil war ended in 2005 following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). That agreement, which eventually paved the way for the south to secede, was intended as a signal to the international community that both sides had finally put aside their differences. However, both nations have failed to implement provisions of the CPA, and this has led to the hostilities in south Kordofan, the Blue Nile state and Abyei.
Access to land and natural resources
Key to understanding most, if not all, of the conflicts in Sudan, especially since the signing of the CPA, is the economic incentives gained from the control of land and natural resources. The importance of land is evident by the fact that up to 80% of the combined populations of the north and south works in the agriculture sector. So, at a local level, the control of water, grazing land and administrative boundaries are major causes of violent conflict. And the Government in Khartoum has frequently used the issue as an incentive to recruit landless pastoralists as proxies, with the promise of a land allocation if they join local militias against armed opposition groups. The severity of these conflicts has over the years increased, not least as a result of environmental degradation, which, in turn, has been aggravated by perceived Government neglect.(4)
Not surprisingly, the discovery of oil in the south has further complicated matters. As a measure of its importance, income gained from oil sales accounts for up to 98% of South Sudan’s total annual revenues and, at the time of the 2011 referendum, had accounted for up to 70% of Government revenue in the north.(5) The decision by the south, where the majority of untapped oil deposits are found, to secede has been estimated to have cost the Government in Khartoum some US$ 1.5 billion per year in lost revenues. This reduction in revenues has meant that the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) now faces a major challenge of being able to develop its infrastructure, pay civil servants and the military, and at the same time subsidise food and other basic commodities, on which very many of its citizens depend.
But the NCP has been able to benefit from the fact that the south is landlocked, and hence cannot export its oil through Port Sudan without using pipelines which pass through the north. In an attempt to recoup lost revenues, Khartoum demanded that the south pay up to US$ 32 per barrel in transit fees. When the south refused and argued that it should only pay the standard rate of US$ 2, Khartoum confiscated US$ 815 million of oil in February 2012.(6)
The border issue
The failure in the CPA to clearly identify and demarcate the border in certain parts and the importance of control of natural resources have provided both Governments with an excuse to reinforce their previous positions whilst at the same time settling some old scores. Much of the recent attention in relation to the dispute has focused on the Abyei area, as well as on Kordofan and the Blue Nile states.
In Abyei, the central issue was whether the area would secede to the south or remain within the north. A planed referendum to decide its location was never held, as disputes arose over the questions of eligibility and the defining of the actual boundaries of the region in dispute. The south argues that the pastoralist Ngok Dinka tribe have inhabited the area for many years and should be the only group allowed to vote, whilst Khartoum maintained that the area is shared by the nomadic Misseriya who take their cattle back and forth across its borders. In 2009, the Court of Arbitration in the Hague decided that the disputed Helgig Oil Field near Abyei was actually within the north and should now be considered as part of south Kordofan. However, ignoring CPA provisions to hold a referendum, Khartoum unilaterally dissolved the governing Abyei Administration and its forces seized the town of Abyei in 2011. Following heavy fighting in the town in March and April 2012, both sides finally withdrew their armies after the UN Security Council passed its 2 May Resolution on the issue.
Meanwhile, in south Kordofan, the political and cultural marginalisation practised by Khartoum has meant that the indigenous Nuba people had for years sided with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in their war with Khartoum from 1983. Despite a ceasefire in 2002, the conflict was never resolved. In 2004, a land commission was set up to address territorial disputes, and the CPA made provisions for a degree of autonomy. But further disagreement over the results of a state census in 2010 led to the cancellation of local elections. The fighting resumed in south Kordofan in June 2011 and Heglig, now a part of south Kordofan, became the epicentre of the conflict. Fighting ended only when the north bombarded the town after southern forces had taken up positions there. By then the conflict had also spilled over into Blue Nile State.
Different countries, similar problems
For all their differences, similar economic and political challenges confront both the NCP and the SPLM. The general elections, which were supposed to have been held in 2008, were in fact delayed until 2010. These elections had been intended to build on the foundations of the CPA by consolidating the reconciliation process. It was also hoped that it would establish conditions that would reaffirm the political rights of all the people of Sudan, and Khartoum especially hoped that it would encourage southerners to choose continued unity. The delay in holding the elections in effect ensured that both the NCP and the SPLM were able to manipulate the situation so as to ensure majorities in their respective regions. Consequently, the opportunity that had been provided to consolidate peace and unity was wasted and, in effect, the process of democratic transformation was dropped.(7)
Amid all the euphoria following the south Sudanese’s independence in July 2011, the new SPLA-controlled Government in Juba faced a number of challenges, including the establishment of Government institutions, rebuilding an infrastructure and implementing several major development projects from scratch, as well as the resettlement of thousands of civilians coming from the north. In addition, insecurity, territorial disputes and inter-communal violence have plagued several areas of the country. The political and tribal schisms that affected the south during the second civil war persist, with opposition groups like the South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SSLM/A) and the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A) exerting influence in areas such as the Upper Nile region. In December 2011, the south Sudanese Government was forced to declare Jonglei a disaster zone when heavy clashes erupted between the Lou Nuer tribesman and the Murle in Pibor County. These two communities have a history of animosity over grazing land and competition for scarce resources but the clashes this time were especially significant for the number of people involved in the fighting, and the number of people displaced.(8)
Meanwhile in (northern) Sudan, the long-standing relationship between the NCP and the military has been strained following the south’s decision to pursue independence. Hardliners from the NCP have argued that the south’s secession would encourage other rebel movements in the country, including in Darfur and in the Eastern province. The loss of political prestige felt by Omar al-Bashir at the south’s rejection of various political overtures prior to 2005 (including offers of further autonomy and an increase in the share of oil revenues) has now been exacerbated by Washington’s failure to lift economic sanctions and provide debt relief. Internal political divisions have also added to his woes. What was once a close political relationship between al-Bashir and the populist Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi, has deteriorated to the extent that Turabi is now the main opposition leader. Socio-economic discontent remains high and indeed is likely to increase as political instability continues to depress the economy.(9) To some degree, the Government’s efforts to get people to “unite against a common enemy” has helped to put these internal differences aside in the short term, and would help explain why both the north and the south have recently resorted to the skirmishes, and at times open hostilities which we have seen.
The recent decision by Khartoum to pull out troops from Abyei is a welcome development, since the move has facilitated the resumption of the post-secession dialogue between the north and the south. However, numerous issues remain unresolved. The most fundamental of these is access to land and the control of natural resources. These basic issues have been exploited by both Governments for political and economic purposes and have perpetuated the conflict between the two nations to the detriment of local populations.
In order to rectify the situation, petty grievances and short term goals (such as the issue of transit tax for oil) need to be put aside so that full and unresolved political support can be given due process. Carefully monitored by the African Union, small but attainable goals need to be put in place which would strengthen political and economic structures, whilst at the same time helping to reduce the levels of instability. The control of oil, which has now become the key issue of the recent conflict, will of course not be of benefit to either state should hostilities continue. Instead, the leadership of both countries must look to the long term, by consolidating the differences between themselves and within the wider communities which they represent.
Written by Ronan Farrell (1)
(1) Contact Ronan Farrell through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) El-Sadany, M. and Ottaway, M., ‘Sudan: From Conflict to Conflict’, Carnegie Paper, May 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org.
(3) Brosché, J., ‘The Crises Continues: Sudan’s remaining conflicts’, ISPI Working Paper, October 2011, http://www.ispionline.it.
(5) El-Sadany, M. and Ottaway, M., ‘Sudan: From Conflict to Conflict’, Carnegie Paper, May 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org.
(7) ‘Conflict Risk Alert: Stopping the spread of Sudan’s new civil war’, International Crisis Group, 26 September 2011, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(8) Tran, M., ‘Explainer: Violence in South Sudan’, The Guardian, January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(9) El-Sadany, M. and Ottaway, M., ‘Sudan: From Conflict to Conflict’, Carnegie Paper, May 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org.
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