The last couple of days, Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, have been meeting here in Addis Ababa, ostensibly to try and break through a number of contentious issues between the two nations that have kept them on the brink of open warfare for some time now.
For those not familiar with the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, try here for an overview. However in brief, there are several critical issues on the table at this particular time. One is the status of the disputed town of Abyei and its environs- control of which gives great leverage over the rich oil fields in South Sudan. Abyei has been a flashpoint between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) for years, and has its own UN peacekeeping base to prove it.
A second issue is restarting the flow of oil from those southern oil fields. While the fields themselves and the pumping infrastructure are all in southern-held territory, the pipeline runs through Sudan and exits at Port Sudan, all controlled by Khartoum. Therefore while profits from the sale of oil will accrue to the southern government in Juba, Sudan has a right to levy fees on the oil as it runs through it. Loss of the oil-fields to the south were arguably the biggest sore-point in the 2005 Naivasha peace accords for Bashir, so it was little surprise when Khartoum started to demand vast- almost unsustainable- fees on South Sudan for the right to pump oil through its sovereign territory. In response, Juba shut down pumping altogether, denying both north and south any oil revenue at all. Khartoum is demanding recompense for unpaid oil fees, and the south is demanding Khartoum reduce its tax on oil. While steps have been taken to resolve this and reach an agreement on the final per-barrel cost, it will still be months before oil starts flowing again, taking a big swipe out of Sudan’s economy, but all but crippling South Sudan’s.
The third major point of contention between the two nations are the two ongoing conflicts, one in South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains, and the other in Blue Nile State. In each case, rebels backed by Juba (a fact generally acknowledged, but denied by Kiir) are fighting Sudanese government forces in northern territory, ostensibly in defence of southern-allied civilian populations who are being targeted by Khartoum. From their side, the rebels (SPLA-North and other allied militia) claim that the SAF is carrying out campaigns of ethnic slaughter and aerial bombardments of civilians populations. Hundreds of thousands of mostly southern-allied Sudanese have been displaced over the last couple of years and are living in camps.
According to media reports (somewhat reserved in tone, and with clear caveats), progress was made during the talks this week. The Africa Union mediator, former South African leader Thabo Mbeki, stated that both Bashir and Kiir had agreed to actually implement an agreement on having a buffer-zone between their respective territories. They also agreed to create a timetable for implementing outstanding agreements, which should be created in the next week or so. After this, it’s argued that the two nations could be in a position to move towards a joint administration of Abyei, and begin pumping oil again.
In summary, what came out of the talks was:
1. A commitment to implement agreements
2. An agreement to write up a timetable moving towards those agreements
What’s important to note is that the agreements in question were pretty much all negotiated back in September 2012- it’s just that over the last 4 months, neither party has actually implemented what they both said they agreed to. Now they’ve agreed that they need to implement what they’ve agreed. And agreed to agree to a timetable to implement what they’ve agreed. It’s clearly all very agreeable between the two nations.
Which of course, it isn’t. Neither Kiir nor Bashir made any statement after the talks. The reason why nothing’s been done for four months is that neither side trusts the other, and the two nations remain, if not on the brink of war, then at least wallowing in mutual animosity. In fact, a source tells me, the presence of large numbers of women around the Sheraton Addis over the conference weekend indicates that the diplomatic parties may well be more interested in the extra-curricular activities on offer, as actually reaching any meaningful deal.
Omar al Bashir and Salva Kiir may have shaken hands and smiled for the cameras, but I suspect this has more to do with wanting to avoid international sanctions for being belligerent, than any genuine warmth, hope, or interest in compromise the two leaders have towards one another. Not to mince words, Bashir and Kiir are enemies. Both are military men, and both have thrown their respective armies at each other on and off for the last thirty and more years. Bashir took Sudan in a military coup in 1983, and the second Sudanese Civil War took off shortly afterwards. Kiir was one of the most senior military commanders under SPLM/A leader John Garang. And this was no gentlemans’ conflict, no Geneva conventions. The war was a vicious, bloody one, with terrible atrocities committed by both sides.
More than three decades of unresolved hatred lies between the two men, and whatever show they may put on for the diplomats, there is nothing to suggest in either man’s actions that there is any interest in reconciliation- nor would there be any real reason to suggest such a thing should happen. The peace between north and south, and the subsequent referendum on southern independence, is entirely externally engineered. South Sudan owes its independence to the intervention of what was then the world’s largest humanitarian operation, coupled by regional (and almost certainly clandestine Western) military support, driven by interests in the south’s oil and mineral reserves, which are substantial. Were it not for Operation Lifeline Sudan, advocates in US congress, the Cold War politics that pitched US interest in the south’s resources against Khartoum, and the pro-SPLM/A stance of several East African governments (particularly Uganda’s Museveni), there’s little question that Juba would be nothing more than a district-level hub in Khartoum-controlled Sudan by now, and the SPLA likely running a low-level insurgency from the bush, like countless other sub-Saharan rebel groups.
There’s more than just old hatred driving the inaction between the two sides though. The thing is, it may have taken a different guise, but the war is still going on. Bashir wants to crush South Sudan. Losing the south has been the biggest blow to his Presidency. From a northern perspective, southern independence is an incredible loss of face. It represents a military defeat and an economic emasculation. From the perspective of the political psyche of Khartoum, a vast swathe of Sudanese territory (and resources) has been annexed to a sworn enemy. Bashir knows he cannot retake the south militarily at this time- in part because the SAF does not have the military capacity, and in part because western powers would not stand idly by and let him.
For Bashir, the best option is to encourage South Sudan to fail as a state. Already the world’s newest nation, South Sudan is also perhaps the world’s most fragile (depending on the various ways it can be stacked up against Somalia). The dispute over oil revenues provides a perfect opportunity for Bashir to choke Juba. By raising taxes on oil through the north, either the south was going to find its revenue slowly held to higher and higher ransom while feeding the coffers (and the war-machine) of the north or, as happened, be forced to cut off oil altogether. And while this equates to a blow for Khartoum’s revenues, Sudan at least has other sources of income. South Sudan, by contrast, basically has nothing. 90-odd percent of its income comes from that oil, and without it, it has been surfing the edge of bankruptcy since. Already inflation in the south is out of control, unemployment rampant, and the government (frail and corrupt to begin with) is all but broke, propped up by the band-aid of international assistance and little else.
At the same time, Bashir has been quietly running ammunition to dissenters within the south. Far from being a coherent nation, at the time of independence there were nearly 30 disparate militia groups-many of them divided along ethnic lines- and bringing these various armies to heel has been an imperfect process. The intense violence seen between Nuer and Dinka groups over the last 18 months is testimony to the very fragile threads that hold the ‘nation’ together- only ever at its strongest when united against the common foe of the north. With ‘peace’, fractures appear and groups turn on each other, settling old scores and creating new ones. Evidence suggests Bashir has been fueling this by supplying bullets to anti-SPLA forces, further weakening Juba’s ability to manage the state’s affairs.
But delaying the flow of oil is not just a tactic that Khartoum is using to its advantage. While Sudan may have more income sources than South Sudan, the reduced oil revenues are still a critical shortfall in its annual accounting, and Kiir knows this. In a way, both nations are now relying on their outside supporters: For Khartoum, China, and for Juba, the western ‘International Community’- and also China.
Kiir knows that Bashir is currently the weakest he’s ever been. The loss of the south undermined Bashir’s authority and the confidence of people (including some in the SAF) of his capacity to rule. The International Criminal Court has issued warrants for Bashir’s arrest in conjunction with crimes against humanity, as well as against several of his key leadership, as well as accompanying sanctions- further weakening both his political position, and his authority. Not only have assessments of SAF military capability demonstrated a vastly weaker force than it has been in the past, but there have been several attempts at popular demonstrations and uprisings a-la Arab Spring- which have been quickly, fiercely and quietly put down. None the less, the fact that these protests have happened demonstrates his weakening position. Further to that, recent analysis of his nexus of power- political, military and religious- shows he is more vulnerable now than at any point in the last couple of decades.
For this reason too, Kiir is unlikely to take any meaningful steps to rein in the SPLA-N. Although he publically denies supporting them, nobody seriously questions the links between the rebels (southerners operating in northern territory) and Juba. The ongoing fighting sucks up Khartoum’s resources and, somewhere in there, with a weakened SAF in the mix, no doubt Kiir is hoping that perhaps there may even be an opportunity to gain a conventional upper-hand. After all, only a few years ago a column of Darfur rebels made it all the way to Omdurman, on the outskirts of Khartoum, before they were destroyed. I am sure that in his happy place, Kiir envisages the potential of pro-southern rebels breaching SAF defences and moving on the capital, or if not, then creating enough political space to allow a popular uprising to foment.
Interestingly, the south continues to hold the sympathy card, at least as far as Western support goes. A hangover from the days when the SPLM/A and the South Sudanese were seen as victims of northern aggression during the 80s and 90s (courtesy, in a large part, due to western media and supporters in US Congress), the west continues to sympathise with the southerners, with stories of ethnic cleansing and bombing raids by Antonovs in South Kordofan and Unity State featuring predominately in the narrative. The fact that the SPLA-N is in part responsible for stirring up this renewed aggression (most atrocities carried out by SAF and pro-north militia were ostensibly attempts to weed out southern militia fighters) doesn’t get as much mention. Nor, due in part to limited media and observer access, do claims of bombings and killings by northern forces get a lot of critical analysis- they are reported at face value (with that very caveat- ‘reported’)- which is all the south needs. Meanwhile, a friend closer to informants than I am tells me that in fact, in some of these cases, there’s reason to think that many of these accounts of bombings are in fact being made up by the south to bolster their political position.
Both Kiir and Bashir are playing the long game here. Bashir would like nothing more than to see the south implode- ideally, in his books, without having to lift a military finger, which keeps him ‘clean’ in the eyes of the international community. Delaying the flow of oil as long as possible, for example by stringing out internationally-mediated negotiations, will play right into this game. Kiir, on the other hand, is hoping that by keeping pressure- military and economic- on an increasingly fragile north, may yet give him the upper hand and weaken Bashir’s hold on power until he’s overthrown or replaced by the military. Kiir’s game is a particularly high-stakes one: The north has more reserves than the south and can probably hold out far longer, but he may be counting either on the current trend of MENA nations to revolt against unpopular despots, or the fact that the international community simply can’t afford to let South Sudan fail, and will prop it up whatever it takes, even while the economy chokes. In the meantime, there are enough regional powers no doubt quietly sinking funds into the SPLA against the SAF (Museveni hasn’t gone anywhere) that the SPLA-N is unlikely to run out of support just yet.
Left to their own devices, it’s doubtful that the two nations could avoid war, almost certain that they wouldn’t make significant headway in building a sustainable and cooperative peace. There are a few wild-cards in the mix though. Western support is one. As mentioned, the extent to which the US, the UN, Europe, other nations and aid groups prop up the almost non-existent South Sudanese economy will be a factor in how long Juba can hold out against Khartoum. The pressure these parties bring to bear to force a grudging resolution is also in the mix- and clearly, it continues to bring both parties to the negotiating table, albeit leaving plenty of room for delay tactics. The Chinese also play a big part here- with the potential to either offset western agendas, or reinforce them. One thing is clear, however, and that is that with the unpopularity of NATO involvement in Libya, and the public-relations disasters that were the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there is little chance of significant western engagement in the Sudans to intervene should things get messier, and both sides know this.
One nation that does have both capacity and political will to intervene is Ethiopia, which already has forces deployed around Abyei and continues to host peace negotiations. I won’t say much more about that, but for anybody interested, I’d suggest looking at the Rennaissance Dam project currently underway on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, and the negative reaction it’s received from Cairo and, pertinently, Khartoum. Then ask whether in fact there could be some sympathy towards opponents of Khartoum as a result, particularly rebel groups operating in Blue Nile state and undermining the current regime’s capacity. Just a thought.
The piece that gets periodically touted as a possible solution for southern economic independence is the construction of an oil pipeline out of Kenya, instead of Sudan. There was talk at one stage of this being bankrolled by China, and depending on who I talk to and the angle of the sunshine, I hear either that groundwork is underway, or its been abandoned as a bad idea. At the very least, such a pipeline would take many years to build and would offer no short-term respite. It would also have to run through extremely insecure terrain- through zones fought over by warring South Sudanese tribes, then through areas in northern Kenya similarly afflicted by tribal warfare, and finally exiting on Kenya’s troubled coastline, where seperatists in Mombasa as well as ethnic rivalries in coastal areas further north continue to raise their head. Not to mention making a big shiny target for the disgruntled Somali militant element within Kenya. According to the most recent snippet of analysis I heard, the cost of the pipeline is so prohibitive, South Sudan’s current oil reserves are insufficient to make the new pipeline worthwhile.
I don’t want to sound hopeless. There’s always hope. However thin that sliver of light might be. And international pressure (particularly from the Chinese quarter) has potential. So too might a significant undermining of Bashir’s position, should that trend continue, as he may be forced to make concessions from a place of weakness. However, as another observer has pointed out, you have to question whether a meaningful cooperative peace between Sudan and South Sudan is possible with two enemies such as Bashir and Kiir at the helms of their respective governments. Extrapolating further, given that both nations have governments that are deeply entrenched with military personnel- men with direct combat experience against their foe- doesn’t inspire many positive thoughts. However, perhaps as one generation passes and another rises, if the prospect of another all-out war like the 1983-2005 one can be avoided, perhaps there’ll be the chance to build true reconciliation.
In the meantime, I think we can expect to see continued stalling, to see Bashir’s trademark diplomatic two-step, and Kiir to continue to play the international sympathy card, while very deliberately running his own violent agenda. Progress, such that it might be, will most likely be drip-fed, with more talk than action. Fighting by proxy-militia is a given, and will happen north and south of the border, and when the pressure isn’t on Bashir on his side, then it’s likely that he’ll find ways to invest spare capacity in stirring up disgruntled populations within the south in an effort to undermine his foe. If the oil starts flowing again- and it’ll still be months at best before it does- then it’ll be an action begrudged on both sides, and probably muscled through with some heavy-hitting diplomacy and some not-so-subtle carrots and sticks.
In short, change, if any, will be slow coming, unwillingly shared, and unlikely to make much difference for the millions of Sudanese on both sides of the border suffering from conflict, from economic marginalization, and from the disease and malnutrition that are the hallmarks of mass displacement in harsh environments.
Note: My apologies for the lack of sources and URLs on this post. I’m not a journalist, so my rigor probably isn’t what it should be when it comes to keeping notes and sources. I’ve collected the information above over a number of weeks & months from various web sources, but my internet connectivity at the moment isn’t really strong enough to spend a lot of time scouring old tweets and links for original material. If I get time later I’ll try and link to info as I rediscover it. In the meantime, feel free to call me on anything you think is inaccurate. -MA