Analysis: 5 factors preventing another North-South Sudanese war

African Union Mediator Thabo Mbeki with UN Special Representative Nicholas Haysom (first on his left) meeting with Sudanese rebels from SPLM-North in Addis Ababa, April 23rd, 2017 (Mubarak Ardol / Facebook)

In a rare public statement, Khartoum’s intelligence agency on Monday publicly rebuked South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and warned him against continuing to support Sudanese rebels, known as the SPLM-North, who are waging a rebellion in two border states since 2011.

The statement cited meetings between Kiir, his deputy and other members of his government and SPLM-N leaders in Juba last week, saying also that Juba continues to “fully host and back the Sudanese rebel movements.”

Reuters considered Monday’s statement “exceptional for pinning blame directly on South Sudan’s president, potentially suggesting an escalation of tension between the neighboring states.”

How serious is this escalation? Certainly, major tensions exist. But there are also factors preventing another North-South war. For now, at least, the two governments in Juba and Khartoum depend on each other heavily. The Messenger explains:

1. Revenue-sharing from oil production

The economic basis for peace between Sudan and South Sudan is a revenue-sharing deal struck in 2012 over pipeline fees. Sudan collects fees for each barrel of oil produced in South Sudan’s Upper Nile region and pumped north to the Red Sea coast.

Nearly all of South Sudan’s revenue depends on this deal; Juba would be financially crippled if there were to be war. Sudan likewise would take an economic hit, though its revenues are more diversified due to better taxation, gold production and oil production of its own.

War is economically unattractive to both parties.

However, the oil deal alone does not guarantee peace. Decision-making in Juba is not based solely on economic rationale, and neither in Khartoum. This was evident in the oil shutdown of 2012, which also involved a brief border war, known as the Heglig crisis. Even though the crisis was sparked by an economic dispute over how much Juba should pay for pipeline access, it was fueled by questions of politics, security and national pride.

2. US sanctions relief

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The United States government in January promised sanctions relief to Sudan’s government but tied the implementation – due to start in July – to several benchmarks, including Sudan halting support to South Sudanese rebels. This means that Khartoum is incentivized – for now – not to provide weapons or safe haven to South Sudanese rebels, as it did in 2014.

However, should the US renege on its promise to lift sanctions in July, Sudan’s security services would feel less motivated to hold back support to South Sudanese rebels. Moreover, the ongoing spread and fragmentation of the insurgency in South Sudan presents Khartoum with opportunities that it might be loathe to pass up. Engagement with new rebel groups and coalitions can create points of leverage on the South Sudanese government. If Sudan fails to seize these opportunities then the rebels will look for patrons elsewhere, resulting in a loss of influence in any future peace process.

3. South Sudan’s military overextended

Juba is fighting rebels in at least seven of ten states. Ongoing efforts to take more territory before the end of the dry season have strained logistical and financial resources. Although rebels suffered territorial losses in dry season fighting in each of 2015, 2016 and 2017, guerrilla attacks have persisted and rebel recruitment continues.

This means that South Sudan is poorly positioned militarily for an external conflict and therefore is inclined to prefer diplomatic solutions to any problems that may arise with Khartoum.

Militarily, South Sudan is poorly prepared for an external conflict.

Of course, this does not mean that a conflict is impossible. The border between Sudan and South Sudan remains un-demarcated and political and historical grievances run deep. Also, there can be a temptation in any quagmire situation to look for an outside scapegoat, and to try to restore flagging national unity by mobilizing citizens around a common cause. Although it would appear suicidal for Juba to go to war with Sudan at this point, there may be some within the SPLM who would welcome it. And since conflicts are usually begun as incremental escalations, initially involving support to proxy groups, escalating demands and ultimatums, etc, the choice is never presented as starkly as one of simply war or peace.

4. Negotiations with SPLM-N

Sudan is keen to seal a deal with SPLM-North rebels fighting in the “Two Areas” of southern Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. The more isolated that Khartoum can make SPLM-N, the more likely that the latter will come to the table. A war between Khartoum and Juba would only drive SPLM-N and SPLM-Juba closer together, making a deal on the Two Areas less likely.

Two Areas
Sudanese SPLM-N rebels control parts of South Kordofan state, in the Nuba Mountains, and parts of southern Blue Nile.

Sudan therefore has a strong incentive to try to preserve good political and security ties with Juba and encourage the SPLM (Juba) to further dissociate itself from SPLM-N. Over the weekend, an African Union envoy, Thabo Mbeki, and top UN envoy, Nicholas Haysom, held meetings with SPLM-N over how to resume peace talks.

But a split in the SPLM-N is complicating the relationship. A recently resigned top Nuba commander wants the movement’s negotiators to insist on self-determination for the Nuba Mountains —  a demand unlikely to be accepted by Khartoum — and he has questioned the leadership of the SPLM-N Secretary-General Yasser Arman and Chairman Malik Aggar. His backers also announced freezing peace talks with Khartoum, though this decision was rejected by the other factor.

Sudan will want to deal with the more moderate faction. But which faction will Juba support? Kiir and his deputy have already entered the fray, meeting with SPLM-N officials in Juba over three days last week, according to Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, which complained bitterly of the meetings.

“We were surprised how a President and First Vice President of a country — despite the spreading war in their country and despite its witnessing a food shortage that hits all areas of the country — have not maintained a focus on efforts to resolve their internal affairs but, rather, work to set ablaze the flame of sedition in our country,” reads a statement from the spy service.

“We… warn the Government of South Sudan and call on it to immediately cease all types and forms of intervention into the internal affairs of our country.”

“We warn the Government of South Sudan.”

The split in the SPLM-N and Juba’s involvement with the Sudanese rebels is therefore a key point of tension between Juba and Khartoum. Ultimately, however, Khartoum wants cooperation with Juba and not hostility as a means of curbing the Two Areas rebellions.

5. Relations between border states

A final factor preventing another war between Sudan and South Sudan is the generally good relationship between local and state governments and communities along the common border. Economic ties include trade, pastoral migrations and some shared infrastructure. In the meantime, years of peace have bolstered social ties as well.

Northern Bahr el Ghazal and East Darfur states, for example, have cooperated in recent years to ensure peaceful seasonal migration of Darfur Arab nomads into Dinka tribal territories where they graze their cattle and trade with locals.

Likewise, in South Sudan’s northern Upper Nile State, state officials recently signed memoranda with White Nile officials in bordering Sudan, covering agricultural investments and security matters. White Nile provides electricity for neighboring Renk town in South Sudan as well as shelter for many refugees from South Sudan.

Local governments have common interests to cooperate to prevent instability, economic disruptions and displacement that could arise from an international conflict.


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