Justin Leach, author of War and Politics in Sudan, assesses Sudan and South Sudan’s new landmark oil flow agreement, ending a year long impasse.
After over a year, South Sudan again appears ready to resume oil exportation, a process that should put oil from the landlocked, desperately poor African country back on the market. South Sudan had been exporting 350,000 barrels of oil per day via pipelines to the Red Sea that run through the now separate Republic of Sudan, which separated from the south following the latter’s July 2011 independence. However, this export stopped in January 2012 over bitter disagreements about transport fees demanded by Sudan in exchange for getting the oil to port. Juba and Khartoum reached key agreements on border security issues on 8 March 2013, and appear on track to normalize relations after a contentious early relationship. However, remaining deep disagreements, coupled with internal instabilities, may complicate attempts at a lasting peace between the two countries.
A border security agreement is an essential first step, as the dispute between the two countries is not just about economic differences, but political ones. A key point of contention over the past year has been the support each side accuses the other of providing to insurgents. As local hostilities threatened to engulf both parties during April 2012, Juba and Khartoum sought to establish a buffer zone that September. However, the parties’ inability to implement this agreement saw a return to hostilities into 2013.
The recent deal to resolve the impasse was reached by Sudan’s chief negotiator, Idris Mohammed Abdel Gadir, and his South Sudanese counterpart Pagan Amum on 12 March after a weekend of African Union brokered talks in Addis Ababa. The two sides agreed to withdraw troops from a demilitarized zone in the contested Abyei region in advance of the scheduled resumption of oil transport. A joint committee is to be set up in March 2013 to demarcate the long-contested border, and troops would be completely withdrawn by early April. However, no schedule has been established in determining Abyei’s final status, leaving a door open for renewed conflict.
The mutual hosting of each other’s insurgents by both states also delays a fully implemented peace. Before the 8 March security agreement, Khartoum had been adamant that Juba stop supporting insurgencies in Sudan such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a remaining faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/A) resistance movement that fought the civil war against Khartoum until 2005, when it began its transformation into the ruling party in South Sudan. The SPLM/A was not an exclusively southern Sudanese movement, however, and the remaining elements typically consist of peoples from peripheral areas of the north such as Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, combining with other anti-Khartoum insurgent groups into the Sudan Revolutionary Front.
The headway made last week may gain the regime of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir some popularity in Sudan; both major opposition parties support the new agreement. The border fighting has been deeply unpopular among the rank and file of the army; many enlisted soldiers hail from peripheral areas of the country themselves. However, the internal workings of the regime leave room for doubt about the prospects of peace. The regime has shown during its 24-year reign a mixed ability at best to hold to peace agreements and build on them with inclusive national institutions or enduring power-sharing arrangements. Instead, agreements have typically been used to advance short-term objectives related to the immediate survival of the regime, and President Bashir’s rule in particular.
Bashir’s still-standing arrest warrant, first issued in 2009 by the International Criminal Court regarding crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, may narrow his options; he cannot be sure of his safety from the warrant if he steps down from power, and his ability to travel globally is limited. It should be noted, however, that many African states have not honoured the ICC rulings to date. Ethiopia has allowed Bashir entry while it hosted AU mediation efforts between the Sudans. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has personally worked with Bashir in mediating conflict between the Sudans, and in the wake of the new agreement, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has invited Bashir to visit him in Juba. Bashir has reportedly accepted this offer. Still, a willingness to host Bashir in defiance of the ICC may not be so apparent among other states should the president retire from his current position of power. Bashir at the helm allows for no obvious break from the norm in Khartoum’s pattern of behavior.
The new state of South Sudan is very weak politically, and also may not be reliable in the enforcement of key provisions of the agreement. The long, porous border between Sudan and South Sudan will be difficult to patrol, and local units of the southern government may not easily cease providing refuge and support for their former SPLM allies north of the border. The SPLM’s hegemonic sway over the government of South Sudan, and its alleged autocratic tendencies, may deny it the popular legitimacy over time needed to make good on its promises. On the positive side, the lack of patronage from Khartoum towards South Sudanese insurgents such as David Yau Yau in Jonglei State, may help the young country recommit resources towards border security, allowing for the increased trade that could equate peace with tangible benefits among border populations.
However, the lynchpin to any lasting peace remains the status of the Abyei territory. Failure to find a permanent agreement over Abyei threatened to derail the peace agreement ending the Sudanese civil war in 2005. At that time, Khartoum rejected the ruling of a border commission authorised by the peace process. A 2009 agreement failed to permanently resolve the dispute as well. Motivations of the actors are the primary obstacles towards conflict resolution in Abyei. The Bashir regime relies on its hardline stance not only due to the oil fields in that territory, but to bolster its nationalist credentials in the wake of South Sudan’s independence. As the region has been traditionally populated by southern-affiliated Ngok Dinka, South Sudan views the territory as naturally falling within southern borders.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how this impasse can be resolved while both groups make nationalist claims for Abyei. Without resolution of the territory’s status, any peace settlement is in danger of unravelling. While there is some optimism that recent settlement will allow for the continued transfer of oil from South Sudan through Sudan, there is no indication that the economic benefits of the pipeline, or of renewed trade, will resolve the underlying grievances of marginalised peoples in the border areas of the Sudans. Without recognition of their concerns regarding governance, wealth-sharing, and land, conflict is unlikely to be resolved permanently. ■
Justin D. Leach‘s new book is War and Politics in Sudan: Cultural Identities and the Challenges of the Peace Process. He completed his PhD in Political Science and International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra and holds an MA in Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies from the ANU.
Image shows a silhouette of a Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s member on January 10 2011, taken on the second day of South Sudan’s landmark independence referendum. © Yasuyoshi Chiba