Is War in Southern Sudan Inevitable?

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Reports from Southern Sudan's capital, Juba, are that preparations are already well under way for festivities planned for July 9 to celebrate the independence of Africa's newest nation. (Five months ago, the South overwhelmingly voted for a referendum to break away and form its own nation.) But those celebrations may be short-lived thanks to recent clashes between Sudanese government forces (the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the disputed region of Abyei.

Both sides have agreed to demilitarize the region, but satellite imagery shows heavily armed government forces, backed by tanks, massing along the still-undefined border between Sudan and Southern Sudan. There has been fighting in South Kordofan province and the Nuba Mountains — border regions sympathetic to the South — where tens of thousands have been displaced amid a government offensive.


As if that weren't enough, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has threatened to block the pipeline that runs from oil fields in the South to storage facilities in the North. Southerners, Bashir said last week, "have one of three options: Either they share the oil, or they pay fees and taxes for every single barrel that passes through the North, or we shall shut down the pipeline."

The saber rattling from Khartoum on the eve of independence for Southern Sudan is not surprising, according to Dr. Jim Sulton, a former president of the Sudan Studies Association. He told The Root that despite independence, the two nations will remain interdependent, and each side will try to maximize its leverage over the other.


"I never thought the North would let [Southern independence] come to pass, but Bashir decided to let that go," Sulton said. "But [the Southern Sudanese government] are like the dog who caught the bus; they don't know what to do with it. The issue is about the pipeline. The Southerners can catch the bus and have the oil, but they can't pump it out. The North relented to international calls for independence for the South because they kept the oil. The Southerners didn't nail down the revenue part."

Does this mean that war between Khartoum and Juba is inevitable?

"There was never any question that there would be bloodshed," Sulton said. "Until you win the war, you can't control the revenue. Khartoum will always win the military part and the revenue. It's up to Khartoum whether you will be on your own. I'm not cynical; I'm realistic."


Five months before Sudan declared its independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt on Jan. 1, 1956, civil war began when members of the Sudan Defense Force Equatorial Corps mutinied in the Southern towns of Juba, Torit, Maridi and Yei. They rebelled when Northern politicians in the capital, Khartoum, reneged on an agreement to install a federal system in Sudan, with considerable autonomy for the new nation's mostly non-Arab and non-Muslim South.

By the time Sudan's first civil war ended in 1972, with the Addis Ababa Agreement that granted Southern autonomy — more than a half-million people had been killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.


That agreement collapsed in 1983, when Southern troops mutinied after Khartoum abrogated the terms of the previous agreement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached in 2005, after 22 years of war in which an estimated 2 million people died and 4 million more were displaced. Besides a referendum, the pact provided a six-year window of cooperation, including a split of the oil revenues, but it did not resolve the question of borders.

"The CPA accomplished a great deal, but it didn't solve everything," Chester Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Reagan administration, told The Root. "You can ask if it was a good idea for there to be a six-year transition. A lot of issues remain unresolved. The two sides agreed to kick the can down the road for six years."


Crocker, who declined an offer from the George W. Bush administration to become a special envoy to Sudan, says the recent military skirmishes between the North and South are just another form of negotiation. "In the case of Sudan, the language of negotiation is political and military; it's becoming a turf war," he said. "This is becoming the positional bargaining of a very brutal kind — it's not unusual. It's hard to watch, and it may remind you of 14th-century Europe in its brutality."

This week, President Obama urged both sides to adhere to the CPA, placing most of the onus on Khartoum.


"Both parties," Obama said in a statement, "have a responsibility to end the current violence and allow immediate humanitarian access to desperate people who have been driven from their homes and are now cut off from outside help … The United States condemns all acts of violence, in particular the Sudanese Armed Forces aerial bombardment of civilians, and harassment and intimidation of U.N. peacekeepers.

"With a ceasefire in Southern Kordofan, alongside the agreement to deploy peacekeepers to Abyei, we can get the peace process back on track," the statement continued. "But without these actions, the road map for better relations with the government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan's isolation in the international community."


The White House has called upon the rest of the international community — specifically China and Malaysia, who have considerable economic interests in Sudan's oil industry — to exert more pressure to resolve the current tensions.

"The U.S. has to try to remind the sides that they need a win-win situation and respect [for] each other's core needs," added Crocker. "War is a no-win situation for both."


But there are limits on what outside intervention can accomplish. The antagonists, both North and South, have a long track record of reconciliation and betrayals.

"The Sudanese have a long history of double-dealing, treachery and backbiting," Crocker said. "The length of time is really quite remarkable. I'm a great believer in human agency. But what you have here is micro politics — there's a tendency for things to break down into smaller and smaller factions. It's one of Sudan and Africa's great dilemmas."


Sulton is even less sanguine.

"The issue is not about political ideology," he said. "Nobody is out for anybody but themselves. There's not a Lumumba in the bunch. There is nobody with any ideology. That died with [former SPLM leader] John [Garang], to the extent that he had any."


Sunni M. Khalid is the managing news editor at WYPR. A former foreign correspondent, he has traveled and reported widely in Africa and the Middle East.

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