Sudan’s Oil War
Since the January 2011 referendum vote for independence and subsequent separation the following July, militia violence has been increasing across the borderlands. Hostilities were initiated by Sudan as a means of destabilizing the newly formed South Sudanese government. The situation continued to escalate with both sides funding and arming paramilitaries to conduct cross-border raids.
In doing so, leaders in Juba knew they were giving Khartoum what it wanted, but many believed that if they did not respond accordingly to Northern aggression, then South Sudanese residing in Sudan would be targeted by government forces. By March 2012, a tentative agreement was reached by both governments – dubbed the “Four Freedoms” – but conservative hardliners in the North stopped the ratification, believing the South was acting as a fifth column against Northern interests.
Struck down at the eleventh hour, the Four Freedoms agreement led to the 8 April 2012 deadline, which passed without citizenship parameters being set in place, leaving both populations in an inauspicious legal situation.
The accelerating outbreak in violence, culminating in South Sudan’s incursion into Heglig, is a direct result of the lack of progress made during negotiations on matters encompassing security, citizenship, and revenue from natural resources. North-South discussions were continually undermined not only by Khartoum’s ignorance – an inability to fully comprehend how the North’s legacy irreparably damaged relations with the South’s citizenry – but also by Islamic hardliners.
South Sudan’s incursion into Heglig intensified the situation and justified the fifth-column perception. The manner in which Khartoum’s leadership treated the South Sudanese stemmed from the way in which they were perceived by the Northern population. Referred to as a ‘bid’ or black slave, the South Sudanese were not seen as equals, and thus, during the decades-long conflict, in the minds of the North, it was not a civil war but a slave rebellion that needed to be stopped.
This perception of geopolitical superiority fuelled Khartoum’s neglect for the country’s periphery, its exploitation of natural resources, the concentration of jobs and wealth in the Arab Triangle, the imposition of Islamic ideals on the primarily Christian and animist South, and the refusal to acknowledge Southern autonomy. Many in Khartoum refused to accept South Sudan’s march toward independence since they believed that maintaining national unity was the primary goal for all sides.
Comprehensive Peace/Internal Dissent
The reasoning behind Khartoum’s failure to acknowledge South Sudan’s drive for independence arises from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005. Sudan never wanted to allow the South to have the opportunity to secede but was forced by the international community to add the measure into the agreement. At the time, the signatories on both sides (Omar al-Bashir for Sudan and John Garung for South Sudan) believed the internal matters could be resolved, and the nation reunified. When John Garung died in 2005 the prospect of a unified Sudan went with him; though, with contemporary sentiments found throughout the South, even if he had not died, the vote for unification would have been difficult to achieve.
For Omar al-Bashir, signing the CPA was an act he was forced into making due to the mounting internal and external pressure Khartoum was under. By 2005, the North’s grip on the country was weakening – the army was losing to the South and the mounting casualties were diminishing popular support at home. Coupled with disenchantment within the military’s ranks and a struggling economy, the al-Bashir administration believed it would eventually be deposed.
Dissent in Sudan is primarily led by religious groups, prompting government officials to check sermons for incendiary language against the government. At the time, Hassan al-Tuabi was the primary Islamist threat against Khartoum. Politically well-connected – with a slight amount of popular support – al-Turabi inspired individuals to attempt to abrogate the CPA, with the desire to see his Islamic revolution spread throughout Africa. By 2008, al-Turabi had allied himself with Khalil Ibrahim – a Darfuri rebel – and marched their militia on Khartoum in an attempted coup that was quickly put down by security forces. The government’s response was to execute the opposition and purge the military ranks of all suspected al-Turabi and Darfuri loyalists and sympathizers, further demoralizing the country’s military.
Ignoring the Inevitable
As South Sudan voted for its independence in January 2011 – dubbed by the population as the “Final Walk to Freedom” – conflict was expected; what remained unknown was the manner in which it would manifest itself. International observers and regional analysts believed secession with or without opposition from Khartoum would be fraught with difficulties.
As the referendum vote neared, the Muslim Brotherhood decried the process as fraudulent and declared a fatwa against its supporters. The organization’s anti-referendum rhetoric branded the vote as a Western plot (read: secession amendment) to dissolve Islam in North Africa and repurpose the region’s natural resources for their own geopolitical advantage – a reference to al-Turabi’s worldwide revolution. For many regional governments, however, South Sudan’s secession was inevitable, and the logical result of a five-decade civil war against successive Islamist governments that killed more than 2.5 million people. Acceptance did not arise without condemnation, however. As expected, fears arose after the referendum as many expected Sudan to be transformed into an Islamic despotism while South Sudan slowly collapsed into chaos.
Internal Strife/Cross-Border Politics
For Sudan, the military losses in the lead up to signing the CPA, coupled with the purges in 2008, undermined the government’s façade of invincibility. The country was already considered a failed state – a kleptocratic, repressive government that pitted opposition groups against each other or paid them off through oil revenues. In the past, these tactics were used to stymie dissent and command obedience, though they no longer worked on the population in the lead up to signing the CPA.
With the government’s authority slipping, many feared more oppressive policies would be imposed on the population, but President al-Bashir’s response, thus far, has been to shore up government support through nationalistic rhetoric, which feeds off the growing conflict with the South. The same can be said in the South, where the government has used the conflict with the North to gain strength and find a common rallying point for its citizens.
Moreover, by November 2011, Khartoum was facing a financial crisis that had the potential to undermine the al-Bashir administration. When the country was unified, nearly one half of its nation’s revenue was generated from oil, but since their separation, Sudan has not generated any revenue from the oil exports. The government’s response was to seize oil as payment, which led to South Sudan shutting down oil production This could take up to 3 months to reverse and could prevent any net oil revenue for both countries for the rest of the year.
Furthermore, Khartoum’s financial struggle has stalled their $200 million payment needed to establish the Darfur Development Bank – a Qatari development project initiated under the Doha Round agreement. The Bank was intended to further develop the region, but, without the injection of cash, its people will continue to suffer and social tension will rise, which could reignite the conflict. Nationalism and economic concerns will drive the North to bait the South into conflict, but external, destabilizing factors are not the primary reason for Juba’s inability to achieve national stability.
Internal strife throughout South Sudan is expected because the nation’s leadership is divided along tribal lines. The referendum’s 99% approval rating for the referendum is expected to quickly digress into tribal allegiances; a shared hatred for the Muslim north will not be enough to ensure national unity. The hope that the referendum will bring peace, give the people a voice in politics, and provide wealth from natural resources, will be difficult to achieve as there are many internal divisions that will undermine national development.
The ruling political group in South Sudan – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – is not known for being democratic, reacting belligerently to dissent and opposition. Regional opposition groups remain out of reach of power as the SPLM leaders shore up allied interests by funding projects for allies. This will not provide the structure needed to develop one of the most remote and underdeveloped regions in Africa. The actions taken by the SPLM since the conflict ended in 2005 has only succeeded in warding off prospective international investors.
The country will not be able to succeed without development and modernization of its infrastructure and public services, which are also needed to strengthen trade with neighboring countries and provide for the country’s growing refugee program. A majority of the country’s oil revenues – upwards of 60% – goes to the country’s military as an insurance policy against a possible Northern incursion. The funds could be better spent shoring up what limited financial resources the country has. Just two years ago, South Sudan was one bad harvest away from famine, and over half the nation’s population currently relies on ‘emergency assistance’ from the government in order to survive.
Violence has been an issue since 2009 in South Sudan when there was an upsurge in tension between the country’s 50 tribes. The fractiousness in the South is its central weakness and a factor continuously exploited by the North. The recent increase in violence stems from failed harvests and the suspensions of salaries to militias working with the Southern government; a result in the drop in oil revenues from falling commodities prices and the international financial collapse. The South is also weakened by the government’s shortage of skills and experience, combined with the absence of perceived prosperity in rural areas of the country.
Negotiations are underway regarding the country’s border and revenue sharing from oil production has added greater tension to the bilateral relationship between Juba and Khartoum. Under the referendum agreement, the borderlands will remain similar to the established line created by the British, but the border will remain ‘soft’ in order to allow for goods and services to pass between the countries. With violence persisting, Khartoum and Juba reached out to the United Nations to establish a demilitarized zone, but the UN was not interested in policing the region.
As the border region was being negotiated, there had been ongoing discussions regarding the oil fields found primarily in South Sudan. Oil is the primary source of revenue beyond the subsistence economies, which does not aid in either country’s stability. The South’s invasion of Heglig illustrates a well-proven law of commerce – that oil breeds conflict. However, since both nations rely heavily on oil exports for revenue, the relationship could strengthen based on necessity – for oil development to be successful in the south, Juba needs the pipelines to the north, and vice versa.
The Oil War
The incursion into Heglig – Sudan’s most valuable oil field – was a response to bombing raids committed by Khartoum on South Sudanese villages and was the largest clash since the country’s separation. Goaded into conflict by Khartoum, South Sudan failed to heed the international community’s warnings to refrain from open hostilities and, on 10 April 2012. The response to the attack by both nations was the suspension of negotiations, with each country’s parliament calling for military mobilizations and declarations of war. Both countries are paying a high price – in many ways – for their own intransigence.
South Sudan has defended its actions by citing the 2009 Permanent Court of Arbitration which stated the Heglig province was part of the south; a claim that is not supported by the international community or the African Union. President al-Bashir’s response was to take back the lands through open war; he stated that “there will be no negotiations” and inferred doing so would hurt national pride if Sudan did not retake Heglig by force.
Neither country will benefit from their joint antagonism toward the other. Neither is in a financial position to endure a sustained conflict, and both would be better off if a rapid solution were found to resolve their disputes. This seems unlikely, however, as the long-term stakes are high. Prospects for peace were high when the CPA was signed in 2005, however, the current situation has illustrated that the agreement’s only success has been the escalation of divisions of power in both countries along tribal lines. The violence between both nations is complex, but this complexity need not mean violence is inevitable. Although it has developed at a very slow pace, progress has been achieved over the last decade and the current outbreak in violence over Heglig is not undermining that momentum. What would make sense would be to explore the idea of oil production and revenue sharing, but as long as the conflict continues to get worse, any hope of a sensible and peaceful solution will remain unattainable.
Both nations’ leaders are well-versed in the consequences of conflict, which will deter both sides from fully engaging the country’s resources in open hostilities. The region’s primary concern stems from chaos potentially created by rogue paramilitary groups, creating a centrifugal force that could undermine both states. Ultimately, UN intervention will be required to get the parties to the negotiation table and find a sensible solution to this self-destructive behavior on the part of both Juba and Khartoum.
The future will hopefully see an eventual cessation of hostilities and an agreement to jointly produce their oil resources for their people’s mutual benefit. Peace has been reached in many other war-torn parts of Africa, though it has taken considerable time. It may indeed take years, in this case, for peace to prevail, but the alternative – ongoing high stakes conflict that benefits no one – is the outcome that is likeliest, but perhaps in the distant future.