South Sudan has withdrawn from the oil centre of Heglig, but while the April stand-off allowed Juba to flex its muscles the diplomatic dismay it provoked has left the South increasingly isolated.
After less than a year of independence, the people of South Sudan and its capital, Juba, are on a war footing. At the centre of the crisis is the failure of the Juba government and of Sudan’s government in Khartoum to reach agreement on transit fees for oil exports, demarcation of the border between the two countries and a host of legal and citizenship issues.
Pervading all this is the political confrontation between the theocratic regime in Khartoum and its more secular counterpart in Juba. Sharpening this tension is the growing strength of Northern opposition groups such as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which are drawing support from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) government in Juba.
The pride and sense of patriotism in Juba is palpable, even after four months of austerity measures. Economic conditions have deteriorated since Juba shut off oil production of 350,000 barrels per day in January in protest at what it sees as Khartoum’s unfair demands for transit fees for the use of the pipeline that runs across its territory to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Since speculators moved in, fuel retails at almost $10 a litre in Juba.
As the rainy season began, food became scarce. The World Food Programme reckons that a million people face starvation, with 4-5 million seriously at risk. Although South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his government were buoyed by a brief trip to Beijing in April that yielded some $8bn of pledges to finance infrastructure, economic troubles are multiplying in the South.
“It’s not true that we have reserves for the next two years. We probably have enough for the next few months at most. But you also have to understand that the vast majority of our people actually live outside the government’s budgets and projections,” a government insider told reporters.
Rallying and Rhetoric
Yet morale for the war effort is high. Young men all over the country are enlisting at training camps. Donation centres have been set up as wealthy business people contribute money; some villagers have donated livestock. One local magnate threatened to buy an Antonov bomber to retaliate against the air strikes by Khartoum that have terrorised broad swathes of territory in the South.
A grouping of 35 civil society organisations formed the Popular Committee for Mobilisation in April to support the war effort.
Rhetoric on both sides is heating up. After Southern troops attacked the oil centre of Heglig on 10 April, Khartoum broke off negotiations with Juba and announced a general mobilisation against the South. President Omar al-Bashir referred to the Juba government as “insects” to be crushed.
With the prospects of a looming war, a special joint session of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was held to hammer out a seven-point roadmap for a new peace accord. The UNSC resolution on 2 May, which called for a ceasefire and for both sides to negotiate or face sanctions, was welcomed by South Sudan’s information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin: “The Security Council and the AU are fully aware of the situation in Khartoum – it is a pariah state. We have never left the negotiating table and so we feel the issue of sanctions will not be applicable to us,” he said.
Many diplomats and some previous supporters of the Southern cause, rattled by the high stakes of the resumption of full-scale war, have voiced impatience with Juba. But some southerners question the unevenness of the diplomatic blame game.
“We’re no longer a liberation movement. We are a government. When we take decisions, there are consequences,” says a senior government insider. “But the ganging up against the South was a move perhaps to get concessions from the North. That we can be bombed, called insects and then be equally condemned shows how dispensable we are to some of our old friends.”
Officials in Juba say they are fighting a war on two fronts: one military, the other diplomatic. “The international community unfairly condemned South Sudan for shutting down oil production in January. They said we were committing economic suicide, but they never condemned Khartoum for stealing the oil in the first place,” says John Andruga Duku, South Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya. “And then came the Heglig incident. There was lots of condemnation against us but none for the North. There’s a double standard being applied here.”
South Sudan’s newly independent government was caught off guard by the crisis and did not have its diplomats in place. “We have absented ourselves from the global stage since independence. A new state is like a new brand, you must market it,” says Andruga Duku.
Until March, Juba seemed confident of reaching a diplomatic deal with Khartoum. Late that month, five South Sudanese cabinet ministers were in Nairobi preparing President al-Bashir’s visit to Juba. Then, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) attacked SPLM positions across the common border at Panakuach in Unity State.
Just days earlier, South Sudan’s chief negotiator and SPLM secretary general, Pagan Amum, was in Khartoum, where President al-Bashir gave him assurances that he would attend a summit in Juba on 3 April.
Despite general opposition to al-Bashir’s visit, Salva Kiir had pushed for it. He had assured al-Bashir of his security, commenting – half jokingly – that Juba was probably the safest place for him. Any threat to his person there would be a naked act of aggression that South Sudan could not risk.
“The mood was insurrectionist in Juba,” says Andruga Duku. “The al-Bashir visit was very unpopular. President Kiir had to convince parliament, the cabinet and the public in general that it was in our best interests to convene the Juba Summit.”
Nothing prepared the visiting ministers in Nairobi for the news that the SAF had attacked SPLM positions. Khartoum’s Antonovs had been bombing civilians and rebels for at least two years prior to the Panakuach attack and, according to the SPLM, sending proxy armies into Unity, Upper Nile, South Kordofan and other border states.
“We had been in a low-profile war only because the SPLM had refused to react. We knew the North wanted to sabotage the [9 January 2011] referendum. Our priority was to provide security for the referendum,” says Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer Panyang.
But in all of this, SAF troops had not crossed into Southern territory since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005. ”You have to understand that the South was not prepared to go to war. They never expected it, especially not after al-Bashir’s assurances on the Juba Summit,” says a source at the Nairobi meeting, adding: “The sense of betrayal in that room was huge.
“ This did not mean that the SPLA forces were going to run away from the attack. They repulsed the SAF from Panakuach, pushing it back to Teshwin. A similar attack on 1 April was again repulsed by the SPLA, the second providing the justification for the cancellation of al-Bashir’s visit to Juba.
On 10 April, an SPLA brigade confronted three SAF brigades somewhere between Teshwin and Heglig, still in South Sudan. About 1,500 SPLA infantrymen backed by seven tanks faced off against 5,000 SAF men supported by 16 tanks and Antonov and MiG air cover. The South Sudanese forces pushed the SAF all the way back to Heglig and occupied the area when the SAF was in full retreat. The statistics of the dead and injured belie what would have been a major battle: 249 SAF members dead, and the injured were carted off in the retreat. SPLA losses were far lower: fewer than 50 dead soldiers and 149 injured.
The SPLA occupation of Heglig had damaging diplomatic consequences on the South. Within hours, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called President Kiir ordering him to withdraw his troops immediately. US President Barack Obama made a similar phone call. If the South had won on the battlefield, it was unprepared for the barrage of international condemnation that followed.
Heglig is known as Panthou in the South. By the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which recognises only the borders in existence at Sudan’s independence on 1 January 1956, Panthou/Heglig is firmly in South Sudan’s territory. However, in 1980, two years after oil had been discovered in the area, Colonel Gafaar Nimeiry’s government tried to claim Panthou for the North and then renamed it Heglig.
Because of its oil wealth – it produces about 70% of Khartoum’s 115,000 barrels per day – it is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate for the North. A formal delineation of boundaries along the new border – at 1,800km – had not been conducted by the time of South Sudan’s secession and independence last July.
Indeed, of the four major outstanding issues that were to be negotiated at the Juba Summit – including oil sharing, the status of border states and the demobilisation of proxy militias – boundary demarcation remained perhaps the most vexing.
It looks to have been a diplomatic faux pas for President Kiir, recoiling at the sharpness of Ban Ki-Moon’s withdrawal order, not to have justified the occupation of Heglig as an action of self defence. Instead, he drew upon the Southern version of border history and declared that Heglig was in South Sudanese territory.
The ripples from that declaration put the South on the back foot diplomatically. Not even an announcement on 18 April that the South would withdraw from Heglig could assuage international indignation.
“The international community will never accept any territorial takeover by military means,” remarked a Western diplomat.
In early 1993 on the war front in Nimule, just north of the Ugandan border, four US Congressmen were on a tour, the first of its kind for US policy makers. At a decrepit school, they observed children in makeshift classrooms. They had one eye on their teacher and another on the livestock grazing in the distance.
As soon as the animals began to disperse, the children would abandon their lessons and run for safety. Khartoum’s Antonov bombers were approaching, and the animals felt their vibrations before they arrived on the horizon. It was this experience that first won support for South Sudan from the US Congress. Over the next two years, the US lawmakers drafted a bill recognising the South’s right to self-determination and imposing sanctions on Khartoum.
Canny diplomacy from Khartoum, which has won over senior figures on the AU circuit, such as South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki and AU chairman Jean Ping, has outmanoeuvred Juba. Western governments, desperate to stop a return to all-out war, follow the AU’s lead. President Kiir’s government faces a long struggle to win the diplomatic case while conditions deteriorate on the ground.