For the first time since heavy fighting broke out in late March, officials from Sudan and South Sudan have met for talks in Addis Ababa, Monday, 02 April.
Held behind closed doors and in the presence of observers from the African Union, the talks aimed at reducing immediate tensions between the two neighbours.
At the end of the meeting, both parties declared their satisfaction and confirmed their determination to avoid “a return to war,” but as it has been for the past 20 plus years, matching deeds to words seems still a long shot.
In a telephone conversation with President Obama, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir reiterated that South Sudan wants peace and is not ready to go back to war. President Kiir has also added that “The people of South Sudan have suffered much and this is time for them to enjoy the fruit of peace with the resources they have."
The two parties may well be determined to avoid a full-scale war, yet clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA — South Sudan’s army) and the subsequent bombing around the oil-rich town of Heglig in Unity State are a clear indication that both sides are resorting to military action in lieu of effectively laying down their weapons and resolving outstanding post-independence issues.
Observers were quick to point out that this latest escalation may also indicate the end of what many believed to be the “diplomatic rapprochement” between Khartoum and Juba.
Commitment to addressing the underlying key issues of the conflict has lead to a few ad hoc initiatives but until now no cohesive platform has been defined, though the governments of Sudan and South Sudan have been in talks aimed at addressing the key post-secession issues, including agreements on the status of citizens of each state and the demarcation of the border.
Talks between Sudan and South Sudan are now put on the back burner. As both sides continue to accuse each other of being responsible for the recent violence on the border, the summit between the two presidents, Omar El-Bashir and Salva Kiir, that was scheduled for 3 April in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, has been postponed indefinitely. The issue of citizenship was to be part of the summit agenda. Meanwhile, calls have come from the international community to cease violence, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging the two presidents to immediately cease hostilities and implement the “agreements already reached on security, border monitoring and the disputed Abyei area.”
Analysts believe that the future of Abyei, the issue of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, sharing oil revenues and the exact border demarcation are issues that should have been dealt with long before the new South Sudan was established. They also add that there was plenty of time between the signing of the Naivasha Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 2005) and the establishment of the new South Sudan (July 2011) for both parties to resolve the outstanding issues. Failure to resolve them has had drastic consequences on both countries and lead to the current deadlock.
The issue of border demarcation and that of citizenship are of prime importance for the people of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Not only do these two provinces have poorly defined borders with South Sudan, but for years the people of these two border states have identified themselves, culturally and politically, with southerners and as such have fought with the SPLA against the regime in Khartoum. Despite this, the Naivasha agreement left them high and dry. Last year violence escalated between the SAF and SPLM-N (the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the North) until the capture of the strategic town of Al-Kurmuk in the Blue Nile province last November by the SAF.
South Kordofan also had its share of fierce battles between the SAF and SPLM-N on the one hand, and with the SPLA on the other. The consequences of this renewed violence have been weighing heavily on the fragile socio-economic infrastructure of the nascent South Sudan state. The renewed influx of people fleeing conflict in the two embattled provinces is threatening the meagre food reserves of the South, already struggling to secure food for hundreds of thousands of returnees from the North.
Back in January, as the risk of a major food crisis was looming on the horizon, Oxfam, the international aid organisation estimated that parts of those two provinces “will be reaching phase four,” meaning one level below famine.
While these outstanding issues are crucial for peace, stability and development, the oil issue is the thorniest of all. The lengthy negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan over billions of gallons of oil have brought no solution to the issue. Each side is playing for time and by prolonging the dispute both Khartoum and Juba are only straining the fragile peace between them.
Both nations depend enormously on oil revenues and while most of the oil is in South Sudan, pipelines, refineries and facilities to export are in the north.
The oil dispute is not only on ownership of oil fields and revenues but also on oil prices. In terms of processing the oil and various fees and services, Khartoum has been demanding a $36 per barrel fee while South Sudan is insisting that it would pay only the transit fees and has put the cost at an unacceptable $3 per barrel.
At the beginning of 2012, having reached another deadlock, South Sudan stopped its oil production in protest, accusing Khartoum of stealing millions of dollars worth of oil. Juba also announced that it would seek to construct alternative pipelines to Kenya and Djibouti.
Beginning in March, Kenya launched the construction of a $23 billion port project and oil refinery in the eastern Kenyan costal Lamu region. The port project incorporates the construction of an oil pipeline, a railway and a motorway that would eventually be linking Lamu to South Sudan and Ethiopia. Needless to say, South Sudan plans to use Lamu as its main oil export outlet
Right now food security goes hand-in-hand with security in South Sudan as inter-communal conflicts are on the rise in the Jonglei state. As happened in Darfur two decades ago, the traditional means to solve grievances related to cattle raiding have eroded. To add insult to injury, state institutions look as if they are incapable of either confronting or addressing grievances in a proper way. Therefore, each and every inter-communal incident escalates into a new conflict creating destruction, new refugees and insecurity. Jonglei's socio-economic organisation is based on pastoral life and unless an adequate justice system is adopted and implemented, peace and stability among the various ethnic groups there will remain a utopic idea.
Touring the areas where recent conflicts between Lou-Nuers and Murle communities have left dozens of victims, South Sudan’s Vice President Riek Machar urged the people of Jonglei “to peacefully surrender their weapons to the authorities.” According to President Kiir, disarmament is going well in Jonglei state and “the process will cover all the 10 states of South Sudan.” But President Kiir is not the only one who has to deal with potential internal strife. His northern peer, President El-Bashir, shares the same fate.
Since the independence of South Sudan, El-Bashir has faced strong opposition and is struggling to remain in power until 2015, the end of his term in office.
The independence of South Sudan has put an end to the coalition government between the National Congress Party (NCP) of El-Bashir and the SPLM that was in place since the Naivasha agreement. As the current constitution is, de facto obsolete, all political opposition forces parties are demanding the formation of a government of national consensus and to prepare the way for a new constitution to be drafted by a national constitution committee. These demands were bluntly rejected by the ruling NCP which instead called on opposition parties — mainly the Umma and the National Democratic Party — to join the government
The status of disputed territories, oil and border demarcation have been the real sources of discord between north and south and Sudan observers believe that the latest outburst has undermined the already shaky relationship between the two neighbours. They are saying that the recent clashes have demonstrated that “as long as these issues are not resolved tension will remain.” Today, the need to avoid a return to war is greater than ever and the time has come, for both sides, to deliver on their promised commitments.
The writer is an independent broadcaster and risk analyst for print and broadcast media.