The last few weeks has seen a dramatic upsurge in tension between Sudan and South Sudan. The most recent iteration ‘began’ with the occupation, by forces loyal to the South Sudanese government, of the town of Heglig, officially controlled by Sudan and central to the control of north-flowing oil supplies. This was quickly followed by a) war-like rhetoric by Sudan’s President Omar-al-Bashir, b) condemnation of the occupation by the United Nations and [portions of] the International Community, and c) a military offensive by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). South Sudanese forces left Heglig- whether by choice (as claimed by South Sudan) or forced out by the SAF (as claimed by Sudan) being unclear due to the limited access by foreign observers.
The withdrawl from Heglig appears to have calmed the situation somewhat- commentary at the time suggested that an escalation to ‘full-blown war’ (whatever that is) was imminent. Sudan’s Air Force has carried out a number of bombing raids against southern targets (aerial bombardments are denied by Khartoum as a matter of course but well documented by witness accounts and the Satellite Sentinel Project). Bashir has turned his rhetoric narrative from that of the offended avenger to that of the vanquishing hero. Meanwhile, the government of South Sudan has played a more defensive game after receiving the diplomatic equivalent of a yellow card from the International Community.
The reality is, however, while the lines of tactical control have shifted and shifted again, the strategic position is little changed. The conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is fraught and on the brink of erupting. But don’t misunderstand this assertion. This is not just some thuggish brinkmanship between two hot-tempered adversaries that could boil over with a careless word. This is a deeply-rooted conflict, in which the issues, the stakes, and the players are all ingrained in a highly tangled context, decades in the growth.
Let’s take a quick look at what’s going on.
I’ve looked at the Sudans context previously, but for those just joining us, here’s the one paragraph summary of the salient points of the Sudans’ modern history. Sudan gained independence as a single nation following British colonial rule which previously saw it divided, with direct administration of the south as an East African colony, and a proxy rule by the Egyptians in the north, resulting in a country with a deep north-south divide on cultural, religious and ethnic grounds. Khartoum’s governance was challenged by a civil uprising in 1956 that lead to two rounds of near-continual civil war, largely driven by the impact of resource centralization, Islamicization, arabicization and the marginalization of impoverished outlying states. This was further exacerbated by the seizure, via coup, of the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum, led by now- (and still-) President Bashir, who entrenched these policies further. The signing of the internationally-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 brought an end to open warfare and led, in 2011, to a referendum which saw the south vote overwhelmingly for independence and becoming, a few months later, the world’s newest state. The time since has been characterized by increasing tension between Khartoum and the southern government in Juba, particularly over the official border demarcation between north and south and, by the same token, control over the country’s rich oil reserves that straddle that border.
On the subject of civil war, it’s worth mentioning the Darfur conflict, which kicked off in 2003 and led to a [debatable] 200,000 or more deaths due to a combination of direct combat and disease resulting from displacement. While geographically (and politically) distinct from the war between north and south (see above map for reference), it’s relevant because it shares many root causes, its protagonists many of the same disgruntlements. Darfur rebel groups have long taken their lead from developments in negotiations between north and south, and many of Sudan’s disparate rebel groups have shared a common sympathy and a loose alliance.
It’s also important to understand several aspects of warfare in Sudan. One is the principle of assymetry. Historically, the SAF has held considerable dominance from the perspective of materiel and training (a proper Air Force used to devastating effect against largely civilian targets, and a large convential standing army), while most rebel groups have historically been militias drawn from civilian populations, or at times elements deserted from the SAF (note that the SAF’s dominance on paper is no longer assured). A second issue is the use of proxy militias. The most infamous of these is the Janjawid, ostensibly used by Khartoum (who, characteristically, denies the charge) to carry out massacres and ethnic cleansing in Darfur. However they were used extensively during the north-south conflict, often drawn along ethnic boundaries and exacerbating existing tensions, and often associated with some of the worst crimes against civilian populations. A third issue is heavy international involvement. This manifests itself both in terms of the support given to the various sides of the conflict, and also in the efforts at mediation. While Bashir has perfected the diplomatic Waltz, dancing around sanctions and resolutions to keep the international community on the back foot, Juba all but owes its existence as an independant entity to the direct intervention by NGOs, the UN, and international sponsors.
Before we go further, let’s do a quick recap of the major players.
Sudan, Republic of– The northern half of what used to be the nation of Sudan and historically refered to as ‘north’ or ‘northern’ Sudan, governed from Khartoum. Population: 30 million. GDP: USD 89 billion (USD 2,700 per capita). Percentage of exports associated with oil prior to secession of South Sudan: 70-90%.
South Sudan, Republic of- The southern half of what used to be the nation of Sudan, independant since July 2011 and with its capital in Juba. Population: ~10 million. GDP: USD 13 billion (USD 1,500 per capita). Percentage of Sudan’s pre-secession oil fields now in its control: 80% (estimated). Percentage of budget accounted for by oil exports: 98%.
Omar-al-Bashir– President of Sudan since seizing power in a coup in 1983. There is an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in his name, for charges of war crimes. And (if the author is allowed a brief editorial moment in what will otherwise be a largely impartial analysis) a tool. Prop: Walking Cane.
National Congress Party (NCP)– The ruling party of Sudan, led by Omar-al-Bashir.
Salva Kiir– President of South Sudan, ex-soldier & former leader of the SPLA, successor to John Garang (obit. 2005), former First Vice President of Sudan pre-secession. Prop: Cowboy Hat.
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)– Main political entity representing the southern Sudanese during the 2nd civil war (from 1983) and now ruling party of South Sudan, headed by Salva Kir.
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)– Armed wing of the SPLM during the 2nd civil war, the legacy of which now forms the core of the South Sudan Armed Forces (SSAF) and is in the process of being regularized. Highly factional and historically driven by ethnic loyalties and personality cults.
Sudan People’s Liberation Army- North (SPLA-N)– Anti-Khartoum rebel group with a strong presence in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. While Kordofan ‘belongs’ to Khartoum, it is ethnically strongly tied to the south, and the SPLA-N is allied with- although tactically and officially independant from- the SPLA.
Sudan Liberation Army (SLA)– Rebel group from Darfur fighting the government in Khartoum.
Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)– Rebel group from Darfur fighting the government in Khartoum.
Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF)– A relatively recent alliance (late 2011) between various anti-Khartoum rebel groups- the SPLA-N, JEM, and two factions of the SLA (the Minni Minnawi and Abdel Wahid groups), now fighting as a quasi-independant force allied with but not [fully] controlled by Juba. Implicated in the recent occupation of Heglig.
Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)– Violent Ugandan rebel group known for abduction of thousands of children and the brutal mutilation and murder of civilians, recently made more broadly infamous by the #KONY2012 campagain. Allegedly supported by Khartoum as a proxy militia that occupied the Ugandan Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), who were pro-southern Sudan, and also carried out attacks more recently in southern Sudanese territory. Interestingly, after a couple of years of relative inactivity, the LRA’s operations have picked up pace over the last six months, just as tensions in South Sudan rise. The LRA is currently operating out of eastern Central African Republic and being hunted by US Special Forces and elements from the UPDF.
United Nations (UN)– The UN has three missions in the Sudans: the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), a peacekeeping mission headquartered in Juba with approximately 12,000 personnel; The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), a peacekeeping mission founded in response to an upsurge of violence in the contested region of Unity State made up exclusively of Ethiopian forces; and the Africa Union-United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), a largely AU-staffed force of around 20,000 personnel carrying out peacekpeeing operations in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The situation as we find it now is a fabulous entanglement of agendas and historicity, driven more than anything by the need for control over oil resources, exacerbated by decades of political, cultural and military division. Sudan, under pressure from the international community via the CPA mechanism, has had to allow South Sudan to secede, losing up to 80% of its potential oil revenue. South Sudan, for its part, can currently only export its oil via ports in Sudan, thus striking an ongoing deal that 50% of its oil revenue will go to Sudan in exchange for said service. The deal should in theory mean that both nations can benefit from that sticky black nectar. In reality, a series of disagreements- over control of specific oil fields and over the pricing mechanism for oil leading to stoppages of oil flow which threaten both nations’ economies- have meant that the relationship between the two countries has been rendered quite disfunctional.
South Sudan’s occupation of Heglig- roundly slammed by the UN- came on the back of months of sporadic aerial and artillery bombardment by the SAF, as well as allegations of ethnic cleansing of pro-south areas in Sudanese territory. The latter events have created an upsurge in activity by the SPLA-N, which as far as Khartoum is concerned, is little different to a direct attack by regular South Sudan armed forces. Even the nature of the recent occupation of Heglig is under some dispute, with some observers claiming a large portion of the tactical operation used SRF fighters- but certainly with the support and official consent of the SPLM.
So what of prospects for peace or war? Does South Sudan’s withdrawl from Heglig represent a willingness to back down? Certainly, the quick and unequivocal condemnation by UNSG Ban Ki Moon seemed to come as a surprise to Kiir- as it did to a wide range of commentators and analysts, many of whom pointed out that the south’s occupation of Heglig, far from being a unilateraly aggressive act, was a fairly measured reaction after putting up with months of both military aggression and political deviance from the north. Whether the condemnation by the UN was as ill-founded as observers suggest, or whether it was a calculated statement planned to buy some more time for negotiations (of the two capitals, Juba- which relies on so much international support- would be much more likely to react to a statement of condemnation from the UN than Khartoum- for whom such pronouncements are somewhat toothless and pedestrian) remains to be seen.
The pieces are certainly in play for the steady build-up to a protracted conflict. Militarization on both sides of the border has been steadily increasing for months. Two-faced rhetoric is pouring from the politicians- most obviously from the north who, with one mouth placate diplomats with assurances they seek a peaceful resolution, while rallying the Sudanese population with talk of overthrowing Juba with the other.
More critical are the unresolved underlying issues. Unfulfilled commitments from the CPA are a critical component. One of the biggest complaints of the South is that key areas who were promised the opportunity to vote on whether they stayed with Sudan or joined South Sudan have not happened. While the rhetoric used by the South is that they are not concerned with the outcome, only that due process is followed, the reality is these areas are likley to declare for the South, further removing Khartoum’s access to oil.
And while control of the oil revenue remains the single most important factor, the exacerbating factor here is the historical animosity between North and South. A narrative- and a very recent one- exists to mobilize populations for war on both sides of the border. Many soldiers- and just as crucially, their commanding officers- are battle-hardened veterans of a violent conflict. While there have been few direct confrontations between Sudan and South Sudan since the turn of the millenium, proxy conflicts have been many. Meanwhile, the SAF have been fighting engagements in Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile fairly consistently since the conflict with the south began to lessen, and by the same token, the SLA, JEM and other pro-south militias have been equally engaged. Add in the evidence of targeted killings of civilians to enrage the South, and remarks that bring forth echos of pre-genocide Rwanda from Bashir, and the political mechanisms to move to a state of war are all but established.
There are reasons, however, to hope that war may be avoided. The shutdown of oil production has effectively frozen the lifeblood of both economies, and without financial resources, a war is unsustainable for very long. It’s expensive to annihilate your enemies.
There is a strong international presence in South Sudan. The international community has long shown itself fairly impotent where Khartoum is concerned, and Bashir has been masterful in giving the UN just enough of what is demanded of it to avoid real penalties, while not really conceding anything at all. However the South is far more dependant on that international support and, as reaction to the recent UN condemnation implies, more likely to react. That said, of course, UN-mandated peacekeeping missions are notoriously ineffective, and it’s unlikely that a significant upsurge in conflict between Sudan and South Sudan would or could be stemmed by the presence of Blue Helmets on the ground. During last year’s fighting in Abyei, peackeepers were accused of taking no action while civilians bore the brunt of the aggression.
One of the biggest factors in the 1983-2005 civil war was foreign interest in control of the oil fields. Then, the war was a proxy conflict in the Cold War, with Khartoum supported by the Soviets (until their demise) and the SPLA supported by the US, who purportedly poured millions of dollars worth of weapons and training into the rebels’ cause. In many senses, the war was eventually ‘won’ by the South (in a somewhat pyrrhic fashion), arguably due in a significant part to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the corresponding loss of support of Khartoum.
Today the stakes are similar- control of oil revenues- although the players (and their politics) differ. The US was one of the architects of the CPA. While having some influence over oil production (and therefore price and revenue) is a key outcome, there is also chatter about the US military footprint on the continent through the medium of AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, and possible interest in establishing an operations base somewhere in the subregion. The considerations aren’t entirely implausible. Khartoum was a target in the war on terror. It provided a home to bin Laden for a period, was Tomahawk’d by Clinton following the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa, and its conservative application of Islamic principles in governance puts it high up the list of states that make the US twitchy. Regionally, the Sahara has become a major hiding spot for watchlisted insurgency groups, as well as drugs and weapons-smuggling operations. Somalia- where there’s a growing catalogue of evidence for US counter-terrorism and Special Forces operations- is a short plane-ride away. With South Sudan’s government a relatively weak (read: easy to muscle) one, it would make an attractive partner from which to base an operational presence, as well as being geographically strategic.
The other major outsider in the deal, however, is probably the most critical. China has vast investment in both Sudan and South Sudan, and is pouring money into developing the oil fields second to none. In 2009 alone, Chinese firms apparently invested USD 8 billion in Sudan, 90% of it going into the oil fields. Pre-secession, it accounted for 50% of foreign direct investment in Sudan. However, while a large portion of its investment has been through Khartoum, since independance it has also moved to shore up relations with Juba, and reported just this week is a USD 8 billion loan scheme. Prior to the oil-pipeline shutdown, South Sudan was providing 5% of China’s oil needs.
What’s key here, and perhaps the best news around, is that China is playing the field on both sides of the border- something that was missing in the 1983-2005 civil war, where both the USSR and the US had unilateral interest in seeing one side win over the other. China, which effectively holds the purse-strings for both Sudan and South Sudan, has no interest in seeing the two nations go to war. It would lose a vast amount of investment, its own personnel and infrastructure have already repeatedly been caught up in hostilities in the region, and to boot it would lose control over a sizeable oil source for which it is ever thirsty. If indications were that China was moving towards supporting one side (e.g. Sudan) over the other, hopes for peace would be very bleak indeed. The fact that they are continuing to invest on both sides of the border offers some hope.
That said, playing the neutral broker in a deal with such high stakes is a very unfamiliar and somewhat awkward position for China, which has consistently been slammed for its ethical track record, particularly in its African investments. Chinese engagement in international diplomacy is at best enigmatic, and this remains true. Salva Kiir has returned in just the last couple of days from a trip to Beijing, bringing with him the confirmation of the USD 8 billion deal. What conversations happened behind closed doors remain unknown for the time being, but it is highly unlikely that Beijing will part with that sort of cash without wanting some assurances that that money won’t be used to buy weapons or simply be bombed out of existence by two belligerents. So far, China has not confirmed whether it will support South Sudanese petitions for a new oil pipeline to be built which would allow South Sudan to export via a third nation. Such a deal would presumably infuriate Khartoum, effectively stemming any chance of benefiting from the southern oil fields.
Of course, to some extent events will be out of the hands of statesmen. Militias like the SRF and the SPLA-N may respond somewhat to the will of Juba, but are not wholly controlled by them, and they are less amenable to the chunks of cash wielded by foreign investors. Should they continue a regime of destabilizing (or retributionary) attacks, the situation along the border is likely to continue to deteriorate. The same can be said for incursions and bombardments by the SAF, which provide the fuel for SPLA-N/SRF wrath. Concerns are that China, with its less than exemplary record on human rights, is not the right intermediary to stop a dirty little conflict like the one currently building on Sudan’s southern border.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the machinery of the Sudans, and things are still unfolding. Even as Kiir returns from Beijing with a promise of full pockets, Sudan has continued bombardments of southern territory, and southern-allied militia have moved against SAF positions in Upper Nile, prompting Khartoum to declare a state of emergency. Behind the scenes, diplomats are scrabbling to keep the communication game alive, reporting with optimism that both sides claim to want peace, even while their respective pieces move against eachother along the chequered border. The withdrawl form Heglig appears to have bought a little more time for a brokered solution to be sought, but done little to change the trend towards escalation.
However, a brokered solution will take a lot of time to be reached, never mind implemented, and rest in part at least upon UN and AU statements whose threats for non-compliance carry about as much weight as ‘just wait until your father gets home’. With the underlying issues remaining unresolved, and a history of bad faith in fulfilling promises, there may be little confidence that both parties will abide by their agreements. With trust being eroded on the one hand, and catalytic events moving quicker than diplomacy on the other, if an escalation to destructive war is to be avoided, some very heavy-handed international involvement will be necessary. Finding an actor with both the will and the power to wield this sort of force is difficult. The best hope for this may well be the strategic use of Chinese investment and intervention, but it’s far from a sure bet. Right now, the indications- despite verbal assurances to the contrary- all suggest that Sudan and South Sudan are on a sturdy war footing. All else remaining equal, their stalled economies may restrict the extent to which either side can wage large-scale industrial war. However there’s still plenty of room for things to get very, very nasty, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire. With significant portions of both Sudan and South Sudan highly food insecure, and hundreds of thousands displaced, the impact of conflict layered on this already fragile humanitarian context could be disastrous.
War between Sudan and South Sudan isn’t a done deal yet, but they continue to teeter on the brink.
For excellent online coverage from the front line of the Sudan conflict, follow @alanboswell and his stories for McClatchy (and recently, Time)
Photos linked to source, used without permission. Contact me with any concerns.