May 14, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Another War in the Horn?


As of mid-May 2012, tensions are rising in the Sudans as lingering political and economic issues that existed prior to the split remain unresolved. Southern Sudanese voted nearly unanimously (98.4 percent) in an internationally-monitored January 2011 referendum to free themselves from Khartoum's rule, a choice which led to South Sudan's emergence as Africa's fifty-fourth state on July 9, 2011. The secession was historic and perilous: the bulk of the Sudan's oil lies in the south, and Juba's independence deprived the northern regime of President Omar al-Bashir of nearly a third of its territory and some three-quarters of its oil revenues.


A Recipe for Conflict

The split has been complicated by the ongoing economic codependence of the two sides. There is no oil pipeline in the South, and until one can be built, Juba remains dependent on the use of Khartoum's pipelines and refineries. Khartoum remains entitled to a share of Southern oil revenues in the form of the "transit fees" it charges to export Juba's oil.

This economic co-dependence could have been a spur for either cooperation or war. Tragically, a failure to properly prepare for South Sudan's secession has sealed the countries' fate. Vital transitional issues were neglected during the five-year implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan's civil war in 2005.  Among them:  

• The amount of oil revenue sharing that would take place in the form of transit fees paid by Juba to export its oil via Khartoum's northern pipeline; • Demarcation of the common border (which should have been settled by a voter referendum in Abyei and consultations in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, all of which were deferred in the rush to hold the independence vote on time); and • Juba and Khartoum's arming of proxy rebel groups operating in the others' territory. The CPA's failure to deal with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-North), the northern branch of the rebel group that is now governing South Sudan, is a particularly grievous problem.

Today, Khartoum and Juba are locked in a predictable and avoidable conflict over these issues.


The Logic of War

Juba has balked at paying the US$ hundreds of millions of dollars in oil transit fees demanded by Khartoum.  To be fair, Khartoum's demands were excessive:  it initially wanted $36 per barrel of crude, though South Sudan had offered less than one dollar (and the international norm is approximately $2-3 per barrel).  The stalemate prompted Khartoum to retributively seize $800 million of Southern crude and to blockade oil exports from the South, and in January 2012 — only a year into its vote for independence — Juba retaliated by halting its own oil production. The action deprived Khartoum of a bargaining chip, but also deprived Juba of 350,000 barrels of daily oil production and 98 percent of its domestic revenues. The oil impasse has left both sides bereft of the money needed to govern their restive territories.  

A multi-billion dollar Chinese line of credit to build a Southern pipeline has largely sheltered Juba from the economic consequences of its actions, but Khartoum is reeling. The loss of the southern oil revenues and the failure to realize oil transit fees has devastated the northern economy, and — beset by African Muslim insurrections in the north, south, east and west of the Sudan — Bashir's regime may not survive the year.  

Khartoum claims that Juba "is not willing to reach a solution." In fact, Juba deliberately escalated the threat of war on April 10, when Southern Sudanese forces invaded Sudan's territory to capture the oil fields of Heglig. Juba's invasion was a blatant act of aggression that cut off more than half of the remaining northern oil output. Southern forces either withdrew or fled from Heglig only ten days later, but not without damaging Heglig's oil infrastructure and pushing Khartoum further into economic crisis.   Khartoum, which had previously made its own incursions into Juba's territory, has responded by bombing South Sudanese forces and civilians near the southern town of Bentiu. Khartoum denied the bombings, while reaffirming Sudan's right to strike at the SPLM-North rebels sheltering in South Sudan's territory. The bombings were preceded by a public promise from President Bashir to "eliminate" the Southern "insects."     


Peace or War?

The international diplomatic community, led by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations, seems committed to preventing an all-out war in Sudan, but the effort has been criticized by pressure groups and analysts, who regard cooperation with Khartoum as morally unjustifiable and likely only to prolong Khartoum's inevitable — and rightful — collapse.  But humanitarian groups have pointed out that African wars hurt women, children and other unarmed combatants most. And diplomats are reluctant to engage in the violent and unpredictable business of regime change; worrying, in this case, about the likelihood that Bashir might be simply replaced by more vicious hardliners within his own regime (top among them the newspaperman al-Tayyib Mustafa and the presidential advisor Nafei Ali Nafie).  

Preventing a new war in the Sudans is possible. If the immediate economic pressures facing Khartoum can be alleviated — perhaps by brokering an agreement over transit fees that will get the oil flowing the Khartoum's pipelines again — President Bashir may be persuaded that he does indeed have something to gain from cooperating with internationally-led negotiations. But drawing Khartoum back into talks is a punt, not a solution: Bashir has frequently acquiesced to negotiations and then reneged on his promises.  

That's why bringing Juba back to the table will be harder. The United Nations Security Council and African Union have given both sides a three-month deadline to resolve the remaining transitional issues, under threat of sanctions. But if the international committed is truly committed to brokering a resolution to the oil and border disputes, some heavier lifting is needed: for a start, the AU would be wise to enlist the immediate support of Beijing, which has both the economic interests and the financial resources needed to ratchet down the immediate crisis facing Khartoum. And ultimately, peace efforts will require international leaders to convince Juba that it cannot topple Bashir's regime, that continued aggression by either side will not be tolerated, and that peaceful cooperation is indeed the only path to prosperity in the Sudan.

Holding off a war will require international vigilance and brokering for many years to come.

.. .

This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.


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