The sporadic talks between the Juba and Khartoum governments in Addis Ababa are off again following South Sudan’s seizure of the disputed oil town of Heglig on 10 April, which points to sharply escalating tensions.
On behalf of the African Union, the former presidents of South Africa and Burundi, Thabo Mbeki and Pierre Buyoya, have been trying unsuccessfully to strike a compromise.
Oil is the headline. Heglig produces about half the 15,000 barrels a day claimed by the Khartoum government. South Sudan took everyone – including Khartoum – by surprise when it shut down its pipeline to Sudan on 22 January. Until the South formally seceded last July, the National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum took 50 percent (or more, if it could) of Southern oil production. Now, some 375,000 barrels per day of production belongs to the Juba government, and Juba is asserting its new sovereignty. This was no sudden move, as many outsiders seem to think.
When the government of South Sudan shut the pipeline to the north, it lost its export route, so losing 98 percent of its revenue. The move was designed to pressure Khartoum and to bargain a better rate for transit fees than the $36 per barrel Khartoum has been asking – international rates range from $0.40 to $1. Most of all, though, Juba was saying: ‘You can’t boss us around any more!’ Many Southerners view independence as a post-colonial liberation.
Oil may bring a gleam to foreign eyes, but it matters much less for Southerners, even those in government. It is just part of the unfinished business from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the NCP and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army.
Other issues include border demarcation and the status of the Abyei enclave, which was meant to be decided by a referendum. Similarly, the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan were supposed to hold ‘popular consultations’ on their status.
Instead, Khartoum refused to withdraw its troops from Abyei. It arbitrarily replaced the governors that the people of Blue Nile and South Kordofan had elected with its own apparatchiks. In Kordofan, the NCP’s man was outgoing governor Ahmed Mohamed Haroun, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
Humiliated by its failure to block Southern independence, Khartoum does not want to resolve unfinished CPA business.
The issues at stake are strategic. From Juba’s point of view, they involve national sovereignty. They also include the security of a new state that is being built ‘from scratch’, as the Juba government describes it. For two decades, Khartoum has paid and trained militias to destabilise the South. It financed and supplied Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a fact omitted from the recent Kony 2012 internet video.
Ministers in Juba know they cannot build a stable independent state while the NCP is in power in Khartoum, but it is undiplomatic to say so. For northern oppositionists, the stakes are just as high: critics are routinely jailed, tortured or assassinated.
Politics in South Sudan have affected the entire country in ways that many in the north have been slow to recognise. The loss of the South has wrong-footed, even surprised, Khartoum’s strategic thinkers. The NCP, a party that built its power on its authoritarian and highly political Islamism, has been trumped by a non-Muslim, non-Arab government in the South. That resonates across the north, where people pride themselves on their tolerant, Sufi-influenced devotion to Islam.
The Sudanese can see that the jihadist party that has ruled by force for 23 years is not indestructible. They are losing their fear. Activists from Sudan’s broad ideological range of political parties are speaking out again. They point to the 1985 Intifada (Uprising), the second time Sudanese civilians had driven out a military government. Many say that spirit of defiance is in the air again. Watch this space. ●