The conflict that broke out in South Sudan on 15 December, 2013, between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has made for strange bed-fellows. President Omar Bashir has pledged support to the elected government of President Salva Kiir against former Vice President Riek Machar, the man who fought the SPLA on Khartoum’s side during a significant part of the twenty-year civil war. The primary reason for this is the dire need of both Presidents to maintain oil production in order to bankroll their political positions. With Ugandan President Museveni sending troops to lend a fighting hand to the southern army, Sudan and Uganda’s often divergent regional agendas converged. On the other hand, the administration of US President Obama sent barely veiled threats of crippling sanctions to discourage Machar from carrying through with his threat to take Juba by force. Ironically, while continuing the heavy summer offensive against the Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF), President Bashir has been able to position himself as a force for peace and stability. Yet the focus on the South has taken the pressure off any progress on either the implementation of the September 2012 Agreements or the talks with the SPLM-N under the auspices of the AU’s High Implementation Panel (AUHIP).
Just as the return of war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in 2011, and the continued violence in Darfur and popular protests across Sudan’s cities in September illustrate the shortcomings of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), so does the recent crisis in South Sudan reflect the failure to address key issues related to governance, democracy, reconciliation and justice in the new Republic of South Sudan. The parties and the international community now face the same challenges in the South as in Sudan: to support an elite, exclusionary, and short-term peace deal which will take us back to the status quo, or be bold and push for a principled and inclusive process, which is accountable to the wider population and seeks to address the root causes of conflict. Khartoum’s interest revolves around ensuring the conflict has minimal effect on the Sudanese economy, as the NCP’s survival is based on the economic stability of the country.
Implication on Khartoum
President Bashir’s visit to Juba on 6 January, accompanied by the Defence, Foreign and Oil Ministers, was a gesture of support to the Kiir government. “We come so that we can bring peace to South Sudan, to our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. Our relationship is very important,” Bashir was quoted as saying. Support so far has been political and symbolic, not military, despite the declaration that rebel forces would not be allowed to operate from within Sudan’s borders and the offer of joint patrols of the oil fields which was later denied. This is despite the historic ties between Machar and Khartoum during the 1990s. The ongoing economic crisis in Sudan has political implications, as showcased during the protests in September 2013 and the need to maintain the patronage system, in particular among the security services. For Khartoum, as long as the oil continues to flow, and its transit and refining fees are not threatened, it will have little interest in being involved militarily. The crisis in the South has allowed el-Bashir to position himself to the international community as a necessary stabilizing force and a peacemaker. UK Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, was quoted in media reports commending the role of Sudan in the conflict. It also takes pressure off Bashir to deliver progress with the SPLM-N talks under the AUHIP and on humanitarian access to the Two Areas.
According to the Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), violence erupted on 19 December in Unity state, affecting the Greater Pioneer Operating Company base and later the Thar Jath oilfield and other oil fields near Leer. Fighting continued to Bentiu and other areas of Unity State on 20 December. Workers from the oilfields, including the China National Petroleum Corporation and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, were evacuated. According to HSBA, all production in Unity has ceased, with at least 4 facilities undergoing emergency shutdowns, amounting to the suspension of a fifth of South Sudan’s 245,000 barrels a day. According to the IMF, transit fees will be worth approximately $1.4 billion to Sudan in 2014. Fighting has also affected oil fields and production in Upper Nile. Furthermore, Sudan is interested in ensuring South Sudan will be able to pay the estimated $3.2 billion as part of the compensation package agreed to in September 2012. In the longer term, the Government of Sudan needs good relations with the South in order to help secure international debt relief, which totals over $40 billion.
Implication on the Armed Groups
On 28 December, forces allied with former Vice President Riek Machar accused the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) of supporting the government of South Sudan. The JEM has publically denied this, saying it would not engage in the conflict. There has been no evidence to date that the SPLM-N has engaged in the fighting or has taken a political side. However, clearly the SRF leadership, and in particular the SPLM-N, have connections with both the Kiir and Machar camps. Nevertheless, the conflict in the South poses a dilemma for the alliance. Every day the conflict continues puts pressures on the SRF constituent movements to join one side or the other. The still un-demarcated border is very porous and the presence of SRF forces in South Sudan has been known for some time. The conflict will therefore affect supply lines and rear-operating bases, and if the conflict in the South brings Kiir and Bashir closer, this could create a new situation for the SRF.
More immediately, the conflict in the South has a direct impact on the over 200,000 Sudanese refugees in South Sudan in addition to southern civilians caught in the crossfire. Entire communities are bearing the brunt of the hostilities between belligerents in the dry season campaign in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. IDPs and refugees in the transitional zone between the two countries are trapped; they cannot seek refuge on the other side of the border where serious fighting is underway. Fighting in Unity spread to Pariang on December 20th, very close to the Yida refugee camp and other refugee sites. Not only has the threat of direct violence increased, in particular given the fighting in Unity and proximity of Yida to Jau and Pariang, but international aid workers were evacuated on 22 December and pipe lines to the camps severely disrupted. According to aid agencies, since the start of the fighting in Unity up to 1,850 people have crossed into South Kordofan, including refugees returning to the conflict-affected areas in South Kordofan, and 2,000 have moved into the Abyei area.
Implications for regional and international dynamics:
The flurry of international concern and attention on the crisis in the South has pushed the crisis in Sudan into the background. This includes not only the implementation of the Matrix for the September Agreements. The military involvement of Uganda, approved by its Parliament has given the conflict a dangerous regional dynamic and risks undermining the mediation efforts of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) of which Uganda is member. At present, the focus of the international community’s efforts, including the presence of diplomats from China, the US, and the EU’s Special Envoys in addition to the IGAD and African Union, is barely sustaining the cessation of hostilities agreement, as the violence continues. However, the negotiators are focusing exclusively on engagement with the belligerents to resolve the political issues that triggered the conflict in the first place. However, in a perfect mirror of the crisis in Sudan, the regional mediators and international community backers and the parties face the challenge of moving beyond striking a narrow deal between the armed actors, focussed on a cessation of hostilities and a short-term power-sharing agreement. South Sudanese and international voices are already raising concerns over how the Addis negotiations can move beyond short-term crisis management and create mechanisms to address the root causes of the conflict, including issues of governance, democratization, corruption, justice, accountability and reconciliation. Most worryingly, the talks in Addis continue to reproduce the worst historic trend of Sudanese negotiations: they only include the armed actors, and South Sudanese society has a very little role, other than to suffer the consequences of the violence and their so called leader’s political aspirations.