As Antonovs from bases in Sudan continue to miss their targets amidst the ear-splitting sounds of AK47s in parts of the disputed border areas between Sudan and South Sudan, it is perhaps only the careful choice of words that prevents this from being called a new war between the two Sudans.
And as the clashes between the two sides continue, Sudan is on the one hand profusely blaming its southern neighbour for having started this latest confrontation over the oil-rich Heglig, while South Sudan insists that it is a case of self-defense and the defense of the territorial integrity of the new state. South Sudan also argues strongly that it could not be occupying Sudanese territory since the history of the disputed areas, as per the 1956 border, places Heglig and its surrounding areas in South Sudan.
The situation has clearly faulted international early response and preventive diplomacy mechanisms and has once again put the structures at the continental and global levels to the test. Meanwhile, the arguments put forward by both sides are not enough to explain why a military confrontation broke out now, despite the on-going political process in Addis Ababa – a process that has, admittedly, been perceived as unsuccessful. There is indeed the tendency to blame the current worsening of relations on the lack of progress at these on-going negotiations. However, whilst that is partly the case, there are three important issues that inform the positions and actions of the two countries. These are the issues at the heart of the matter and are capable of pushing them beyond the tipping point into full-blown war.
First is the continued existence of a post-war and post-split bitterness that has lead to an atmosphere of intense mutual suspicion between the two capitals. The incessant exchange of accusations about the arming of rebels in one another’s territories and threats of economic sabotage are evidence of this – a situation that has persisted since the independence of South Sudan last year. Whilst this might be a natural consequence of the more than two decades of war between the North and South, this is be worsening by the day. This is due to strained relations between the two leaders in Khartoum and Juba, who are constantly attacking one another in the media, and the renewal of the activities of armed groups on both sides. Some of these groups have an historical affiliation with people of the other country.
The preoccupation with access to the oil wealth is the second issue. Importantly, in the Sudans, deposits straddle the border between the two countries. Heglig, for example is an important oil-producing site for Sudan and loss of its revenue has dire implications for its economic stability. About half of Sudan’s remaining 115 000 barrels per day of oil production is produced from this region and explains why Khartoum will go to any length to maintain control over it.
Finally these two issues inform the emergence of the third factor which has to do with the lack of appreciation by the political leadership in the two countries of the extent to which the economic, security and cultural destinies of the two countries are inextricably linked. This is, by extension in a security sense, a case of a mutually assured destabilisation (MAD) whereby the destabilisation of any of the two countries is an assurance that the other will be destabilised as well. Apart from proximity, the two countries have over the years borrowed heavily from one another’s culture and learned a great deal from one other’s choices. They can’t wish one another away. They have effectively become like separated Siamese twins whose identities cannot be defined without reference to one other and their history of once been joined together. Yet, despite the reality of their shared destiny, which has been acknowledged by the leaders of both countries, it is yet to reflect in mutual cooperation.
The interplay of choices based on these three factors and the projection of the right of self-defense and preservation of territorial integrity are, in turn, informing unilateral and knee-jerk reactions in both capitals and souring relations between them. Despite signing a memorandum of non-aggression and two important framework agreements on borders and nationality, the resort to unilateral decisions and the flexing of military muscle around the border has effectively derailed progress at the negotiations and made the work of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) more difficult. Post-‘divorce’ rivalry and mutual suspicion over the possibility of destabilisation are the most deadly and damaging obstacles to progress at the negotiating table and a key determinant of the possibility of peace and the practice of good neighbourliness between the two Sudans.
If the two countries do not temper their actions and resort to war it would be disastrous for people living on both sides. War is effectively a fast-forward button towards destruction and a reverse gear in the advance of countries towards development. A war will cause the two countries to concentrate their energies and resources on buying bullets and bombs instead of building bridges and infrastructure. Against the background of the sharp drop of revenue for both countries - in Khartoum after the split and Juba after shutting down oil production - a resumption of war would mean that both sides would empty their national kitties in waging an unjustified and unnecessary war. For Juba, the little progress that has been made towards development since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) will be reversed quickly and a mass exodus of southerners into other countries in the region will be inevitable. At the moment, there is no assurance that the enthusiastic southern returnees are ready to be displaced again.
There is a need for the international community to unequivocally condemn the use of force and seek to advance negotiations on the outstanding issues. As soon as possible the African Union and the United Nations should deploy an observer mission and prepare for the deployment of a possible force of peacekeepers, should the tensions and war rhetoric persist. The cost of renewed war will be far more difficult to handle than a preventive deployment at this stage. Progress at the negotiation table is also crucial. The AUHIP should build a strong leverage that is capable of forcing parties to respect the outcomes of deliberations. This can be achieved through the express support of the international community for the process, and the elimination of regional positioning and geopolitics that undermine commitments to the terms of the Addis Ababa negotiations.
Lastly the two partners need to be made aware, once again, of their “mutually assured destabilisation”. This realization could, on the long run, lead to the resolution of the issues around borders and oil and also provide a framework for both parties to cautiously manage emerging issues and mutually support each other in the search for stability after the split.
Andrews Atta-Asamoah is a Senior Researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, South Africa
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