By Ramzy Baroud
In a statement published last July, Amnesty International called on UN member states to control arm shipments to both Sudan and South Sudan. It accused the US, Russia and China of fuelling violations in the Sudan conflict through the arms trade.
While China was reportedly supplying the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) with conventional weapons, Russia provided Antonov aircraft and Sukhoi SU-25 fighters.
US support of South Sudan is already well-known. “The US reportedly provided $100 million (Dh367 million) a year in military assistance to the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army],” reported Russia Today on April 19, citing a December 2009 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks.”
The same cable was used by Amnesty to argue against arming both sides of a potentially volatile conflict.
A day after Amnesty’s call was issued, South Sudan became a sovereign nation, and soon after it became a member of the United Nations and the Africa Union. A hyped sense of achievement was celebrated by the countries that supported the SPLA in Sudan’s long and bloody civil war between 1983 and 2005, which cost an estimated 2.5 million lives. Both Sudanese governments had then promised a new dawn of political freedom and economic prosperity.
Neither the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement nor the January 9-15, 2011 referendum managed to actually redeem the many disputes between both countries. In fact, even before South Sudan gained its independence in July, a conflict in South Kordofan broke out between the Sudanese army and the SPLA. Both sides reportedly committed crimes against civilians.
Various international institutions and media continue to warn of possible starvation in the tumultuous region.
The conflict is, in fact, ripe for further escalation following clashes that began late March around the Heglig area and culminated in South Sudan’s seizure of the town on April 10, followed by a hasty retreat ten days later. Heglig hosts Sudan’s largest oil field and much of its total oil production.
Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir responded by rallying the public and his troops in the North Kordofan state. Speaking to a large crowd in the state capital, Al Obeid, he effectively declared war. “Heglig isn’t the end, it is the beginning,” he said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “And we shall go all the way to Juba,” he added, in reference to the capital of South Sudan. Barnaba Marial Benjamin, spokesman for the South Sudan government, said rather patronisingly that he considered Sudan a neighbour and “friendly nation”, and claimed that “up to now we have not crossed even an inch into Sudan” (Associated Press, April 19).
Following independence, South Sudan parted with a large chunk of Sudan’s territories and most of the country’s oil wealth. However, being landlocked with a destroyed infrastructure, the country is not capable of exporting its oil for desperately needed funds.
Running out of Options
The fact is, both countries are caught in a deadly lock. They can neither part ways completely, nor cooperate successfully without risk of war at every turn.
Although Bashir gleefully insisted that “Heglig is in Kordofan”, he knows he is actually running out of options. Heglig accounts for 50 per cent of Sudan’s oil production, according to some estimates. While Khartoum has already “lost three-quarters of its oil revenue after the secession,” according to Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, “now it is poised to lose the rest.”
If ‘peace’ has proved costly to Sudan, its newly independent neighbour is not in a much better situation — especially since oil exports account for over 98 per cent of its total economy. For South Sudan, oil production is needed to refuel a tattered economy. In order to use its well-established oil pipelines to transport South Sudan oil, Sudan demanded compensation of up to a third of the value of each barrel. Its rationale is that its own investment in the oil industry makes it possible for South Sudan to export oil in the first place. The south’s capture of Heglig may be foolish — considering Sudan’s relative military superiority — but it was meant to raise the stakes, and strengthen South Sudan’s position in case of future talks to resolve the crisis.
However the crisis cannot be resolved by empty gestures and reassuring statements. The conflict in that region has been festering for decades, and war has been the only common language. Powerful countries, including the US, Russia, China, but also regional Arab and Africa players, have often exploited the conflict to their advantage. In a recent analysis, the International Crisis Group in Brussels advised that a “new strategy is needed to avert an even bigger crisis.” The bigger crisis lies in the fact that Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is facing political instability at home, preventing any real commitment previous agreements. The crisis group recommends that the “UN Security Council must reassert itself to preserve international peace and security, including the implementation of border monitoring tasks as outlined by UN Interim Security Force in Abyei.”
Expecting the Security Council to act in political tandem seems a bit too optimistic. Considering that the US is arming and supporting South Sudan, and that Russia and China continue to support Khartoum, the rivalry in fact exists within the UN itself.
While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did condemn the South’s seizure of the oil field and also condemned air raids by Sudan on South Sudan, much more is needed. For a sustainable future peace arrangement, Sudan’s territorial integrity must be respected, and South Sudan must not be pushed to the brink of desperation. Rivalries between the US, China and Russia cannot continue at the expense of nations that teeter between starvation and civil wars. And whatever hidden hands continue to exploit Sudan’s woes now need to be exposed and isolated.