In Brief: Sudan Fighting Halts Secession Negotiations
Wednesday, 16 March 2011
After the enthusiasm following the overwhelming vote in favour of secession in the January 2011 referendum, the reality check in southern Sudan came quickly. Two areas have broken out in violent clashes recently:
  • In oil-rich Upper Nile State, SPLM forces are fighting with troops allied to general George Athor who abandoned his allegiance to the SPLM when he lost the 2010 elections for the Jonglei governor position. Estimates indicate that more than 200 people have died since the beginning of 2011, and around 20,000 have been displaced.
  • In the disputed Abyei border region, violent have broken out between SPLM troops and Misseriya nomads. The Misseriya traditionally used to enter Abyei to graze their cattle and their grazing rights are protected, but there are accusations that the north uses the pastoral population as militias to secure influence in the Abyei region. An estimated 25,000 people have fled the region.

The spokesman of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), Pagan Amun, accused the north of deliberately fomenting unrest, arguing that the north was arming rebels and intended to take over Abyei by force.

Same Old Story?  
Neither one of the crises should come as a great surprise as they fall back into well established patterns: The conflict with Athor’s breakaway faction illustrates how fragmented the South is and how easily this can destabilise the south, especially if breakaway groups are then clandestinely supported by the north. It was and is not in the north’s interest to let the south secede, which would transfer the rights to significant oil resources, but international pressure and attention had left little scope to interfere with the referendum decision immediately. Rather than risk the negative perceptions associated with declaring an outright war against the south, northern Sudan appears to continue its tried and tested method of exploiting divisions in the south.

And in Abyei, Khartom may be willing to go even further: Newspaper reports now cite movements of both troops and equipment of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the northern military, to Abyei. Abyei, given ‘special administrative status’ in the 2005 CPA so that the overall agreement could be signed, has continued to be a major disruptive factor in north-south relations. It is clear that neither side is willing to back down. In 2007, the International Crisis Group warned: ‘What happens in Abyei is likely to determine whether Sudan consolidates the peace or returns to war.’ If both sides continue to escalate the hostilities, could this mean the resumption of the pre-CPA conflict, turning it from what was nominally a civil war into a war between two nation states?

International pressure had helped to push through the referendum and amongst the rewards promised to Khartoum by the US was a lifting of sanctions and removal of Sudan from the list of states that sponsor terror. The unresolved situation in Darfour had already raised doubts that the US would be willing to meet these commitments rapidly, but the developments in the South indicate that lifting of sanctions will be on hold for now: In a strongly worded statement, the US described the violence as ‘unacceptable’ and have condemned the deployment of forces on both sides. However, they also warned Khartoum explicitly that it faced ‘greater, more painful isolation’ unless it took credible steps to halt the hostilities.

Amongst the immediate economic issues are:
  • The ongoing negotiations between north and south to clarify the modalities of the secession in July 2011 are on hold. Both parties had e.g. agreed to use the annual World Bank and IMF meeting in April to lobby for debt relief, but it is now difficult to see how a joint delegation can be sent out for this purpose.
  • The distribution of oil revenues will become even more complicated. This had been a touchy issue in the CPA period as the south accused the north of not fully disclosing information about oil revenues, and transferring less than what the south was entitled to. Of course losing an even larger allocation of oil revenues is a key motivation for the north’s efforts to destabilise the south and hang on to the Abyei territory. Revenue management will not improve. Both sides are heavily dependent on oil exports, but for the underdeveloped south, they amount to around 99% of revenues.
  • If hostilities escalate, the south may consider disrupting oil production again, throwing the entire sector back.
  • The south has also warned that it would consider alternative routes for oil exports – given the lack of pipeline and even road infrastructure in the south, there are, however, no real alternatives. A return to full violent conflict will also deter investors in such infrastructure.
  • Even in the pre-CPA days, the south had pockets of normality, so the ongoing clashes are not necessarily going to disrupt thriving business activities, but such a scenario does not help the much needed reconstruction process either: In the south, increased hostilities may mean that demobilised and underoccupied fighters would effectively be given work, but overall, it would undermine the south’s recovery by absorbing financial and other resources.
  • It will be interesting to see how China’s interests play out: In the past, the country had co-operated closely with Khartoum, investing in the oil sector and supporting the government with arms sales. However, after the signing of the CPA, China has tried to establish relations with the southern government. Will China fall back into supporting its old ally, or try to engage both sides so that oil production – its primary interest – can be maintained at current levels and expanded? China’s expanding role in the region may also affect this decision: Alongside Total, CNOOC is expected to farm into Tullow Oil’s Uganda blocks shortly.

Also read:
A New Start? Business Potential and Risks in Newly Independent Southern Sudan

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