Back to war'

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

An oilfield that caught fire in Heglig, Sudan. South Sudanese army systematically destroyed oil rigs and the central processing facility in the border town in mid-April.-ABD RAOUF/AP

An oilfield that caught fire in Heglig, Sudan. South Sudanese army systematically destroyed oil rigs and the central processing facility in the border town in mid-April.-ABD RAOUF/AP

South Sudan's capture of an oil town on the border in Sudan leads to the resumption of hostilities between the two countries.

IN the second week of April, the military forces of the newly independent South Sudan occupied the oil town of Heglig near its border with the Republic of Sudan. The Sudanese army was caught napping as its former compatriots ransacked the town after systematically destroying the oil rigs and badly damaging the central processing facility and other infrastructure. It will take some time for oil from the region to reach the international market once again; both countries send their oil to Heglig for processing.

The surprise attack came even as talks were going on between the two countries in Addis Ababa under the auspices of the African Union (A.U.). Earlier in the year, the two countries had signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to find a negotiated settlement on resource-sharing and the border dispute.

Khartoum's response was swift and brutal. Its planes and tanks scattered the South Sudanese army and inflicted severe casualties. President Omar al-Bashir, who presided over the bifurcation of Sudan, declared war on South Sudan and said the hostilities would stop only after the government there was taught a fitting lesson.

After the bifurcation in July 2011, Sudan lost most of its oil-producing areas. Heglig was one of the few that remained on its territory. It produced around 55,000 barrels a day, which is crucial to the economy of Sudan.

Both countries faced serious oil shortages in recent months and were locked in a dispute over the splitting of oil revenues. Before Sudan agreed to the bifurcation, the two sides had worked on a blueprint to share oil revenues. Under that, all of landlocked South Sudan's oil is transported through a network of pipelines passing through the North and culminating in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

After the bifurcation, the leadership in the South, encouraged no doubt by some Western governments and oil companies, started backtracking on its commitments. President Salva Kiir's government in Juba also made plans to build pipelines through Uganda and Kenya. Earlier this year, it took the precipitate decision to stop oil production, citing the revenue-sharing dispute. The South produces around 350,000 barrels a day.

The South also claimed that oil-producing areas such as Heglig and Abyei along the border were occupied illegally by the North. Heglig is located in Sudan's South Kordofan province and is recognised as an integral part of that country by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Kiir's decision to stop oil production caused serious shortages in both countries and deprived South Sudan of desperately needed revenues; oil accounts for 98 per cent of its revenues.

India's investment in Sudan's hydrocarbon sector, through Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), is $3 billion and China's is even bigger. Both countries have scrambled to protect their stakes in South Sudan and have also dispatched special representatives to Sudan. They have offered to participate in South Sudan's plans for building an alternative pipeline to the Kenyan coast. South Sudan has also come under pressure from Western oil companies to renegotiate the contract they signed when the south was part of undivided Sudan.

Since independence last year, the government of South Sudan has not been able to maintain law and order in the ethnically diverse country. It has a bloated and undisciplined army of former guerilla fighters that the government is finding difficult to disband or disarm. Cattle raiding, a habitual pastime of the new country's warring ethnic groups, has claimed thousands of lives this year. The country is one of the poorest in the world and independence has done nothing to change this status.

These facts have, however, not stopped the government from allotting two Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles each to all senior officials. Juba gets electricity only for a couple of hours every day. International aid workers are aghast at the high levels of corruption they witness in the capital.

U.N. ultimatum

The United Nations described the raid and capture of Heglig as an act of aggression. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the attack as an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and clearly an illegal act. Even the United States, among South Sudan's biggest backers, was alarmed. Its special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan said the move went beyond self defence and warned that the war could get nastier and nastier.

In the first week of May, the U.N. Security Council gave an ultimatum to both sides to cease fighting and accept a negotiated settlement involving a seven-point plan put forward by the A.U. It also threatened to impose Chapter 7 sanctions on both countries.

President Kiir, who had said in the last week of April that Khartoum had declared war on his country by using planes to bomb the oilfields of Unity State, was quick to accept the Security Council's ultimatum.

Earlier, President Bashir had said that the leaders of South Sudan only understood the language of the gun. On April 20, speaking after Heglig was liberated, Bashir said it was South Sudan that started the fighting and we will announce when we will stop.

Despite the heated rhetoric, Khartoum cautiously welcomed the Security Council directive. The Foreign Ministry in a statement said that meaningful peace could be achieved only if South Sudan ended its support to the rebel groups fighting in Sudan. The country's ambassador to the U.N., Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, said sanctions should be imposed on the aggressor, South Sudan, and not on the victim.

Ultimately, both sides promised to abide by the A.U. peace plan, under which both sides have to resume negotiations by mid-May and resolve all outstanding disputes within three months. The Security Council resolution has also called for the withdrawal of troops from all the disputed areas.

It is a fact that both sides support proxy rebel groups. However, it is the government in Khartoum that has been the most affected. South Sudan supports the rebels in Darfur and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (North) rebels in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile area. The SPLM (N) has joined forces with the rebels in Darfur and other parts of Sudan to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with the avowed aim of toppling the government in Khartoum. The U.N. and the U.S. have called on the government in Juba to stop supporting the SPLM (N).

Bashir has tried to rouse patriotic passions by focussing on the so-called treachery of the South Sudan government. His speeches, containing racial undertones, may have gone down well on the domestic circuit but have come in for criticism internationally. Many Sudanese feel that he is also to blame for the events that have unfolded since the secession of the South.

The Washington-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which led to the division of the country, was signed in a hurry. The CPA was vague about the modalities for the division of power and wealth and the demarcation of borders. Bashir signed the CPA under Western pressure, ceding three-quarters of Sudan's oil wealth to South Sudan. According to many experts on the region, the seeds of further disintegration of Sudan were sown with the signing of the CPA.

Senior politicians and officials in Khartoum have said that the only long-term solution to the conflict is the removal of the SPLM from power in the South. Those feeling the immediate impact of the war are those southerners who have been long-time residents in Khartoum. Before the recent round of hostilities broke out, the two governments were on the verge of signing an agreement that would allow citizens of the two countries freedom of movement and commerce. Now Khartoum is threatening to expel forcibly more than 500,000 southerners who do not have the requisite residency papers.

The long-running civil war in the country cost more than two and a half million lives and caused untold suffering. A new round of hostilities is something the beleaguered populace of both nations can do without. There is the danger of outside powers being drawn into the conflict. South Sudan has already asked neighbouring Uganda for help. Senior Ugandan military officials have said that their country will intervene if there is a serious military threat to the government in Juba.

The U.S. may be tempted to join the conflict in a region awash with oil. It is also looking for permanent basing facilities for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). It has been reported that the government in Juba is favourably inclined to provide the U.S. a military foothold on its territory. The leaders of South Sudan are also very close to Israel. In its quest to establish military superiority over its bigger northern neighbour, South Sudan could ask Israel for military assistance. As it is, South Sudan is overflowing with weapons supplied from the West in the run-up to independence.

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