Article written

  • on 24.04.2012
  • at 04:52 PM
  • by Randa Ghazy

Sudan conflict a series of internal divisions complicated by oil riches 0

Last week, the low intensity conflict between the new state of South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan escalated into a near full-scale war.

On Monday April 10, the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) took control of the strategic town of Heglig from troops loyal to Khartoum. That same day, Khartoum launched a series of air rides, bombing the towns of Jonglei and Heglig. In the ensuing fight, SPLA shot down two of Khartoum’s MIG 29 jets.

(Read: Khartoum promises to wage war over Heglig)

On Wednesday April 11, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, called the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, saying “I am ordering you to pull your troops out of Heglig.”

On Thursday morning, Kiir addressed parliament in Juba where he told a cheering crowd that he had told Mr Ban on the phone, “I am not under your command.” The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, called on both parties to cease hostilities. As the week ended, South Sudan was in full military mobilisation.

The war between North and South Sudan is swiftly becoming a complex international issue; Khartoum accuses the SPLA of launching aggression on its territory and supporting rebels in Blue Nile and South Kordofan; that is why it has retaliated by bombing South Sudan’s positions.

Technically, Khartoum is right, for the troops fighting it are SPLA soldiers — to be precise, soldiers of the SPLA North, which fought alongside the Southern army between 1983 and 2005. But Juba denies involvement in the war in North Sudan, as the SPLA North soldiers are actually not from South Sudan. It is this part of the jigsaw puzzle that has to be understood if international efforts to end the conflict are to bear fruit.

Khartoum has a reputation for exclusion, marginalisation and oppression of many communities in its territory. The civil war in Sudan that led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 pitted many of these marginalised communities against Khartoum.

Given its oppressive ways, one could even say that most of Sudan has been marginalised by the Khartoum regime. However, the more distinctly marginalised groups included people in the territory currently known as South Sudan, South Kordofan (where most of the intense fighting has been taking place) and eastern Sudan, especially the areas around the Red Sea Mountains.

This region is occupied by different communities close to the Ethiopians and Eritreans. In fact, eastern Sudan is the poorest and most marginalised region of the Republic of Sudan. And finally, there is Darfur, the best known conflict in Sudan.

The territory currently known as the Republic of South Sudan was a separate entity from the rest of modern day Sudan until 1947, when the British colonial government integrated it into Sudan.

Although this is the region where the SPLA was born, it was not the only region with grievances against Khartoum. Thus, when SPLA was formed, communities from South Kordofan, Nuba [Southern Kordofan is in the same Nuba mountains] and the Blue Nile region that had grievances against Khartoum joined the SPLA. Even marginalised groups from Darfur who did not form part of the SPLA received inspiration and training from it. Therefore, by the time the CPA was signed in 2005, communities from these regions other than Darfur formed two divisions of the SPLA.

These divisions of the SPLA remained inside North Sudan. When Khartoum failed to meet their demands, they launched a war of liberation too. Khartoum has used this to claim that it is under attack from South Sudan and has won sufficient international support with this claim.

Secondly, it has also used it as an excuse to attack South Sudan, now an independent state, thereby triggering off an international war.

Knowledgeable sources say that many of these communities felt betrayed by the SPLA when it signed the CPA, which paved way for the Independence of the South from the rest of Sudan. They had fought alongside the SPLA for more than two decades and felt that the Independence of South Sudan would leave them in a relatively weaker position.

However, sources say, the main faction of the SPLA that formed the new South Sudan promised to pressure Khartoum to reach an agreement with its former allies in these marginalised regions. It also promised them support if Khartoum failed to accommodate their concerns. But Khartoum seems to have had little interest in addressing the grievances of these communities. The question is why?

Contrary to what people think, Khartoum had a strong interest in the secession of South Sudan. This seems contradictory because most states prefer to hold onto territory even at extremely high cost.

This is especially so for Khartoum because most of the oil (80 per cent) is in South Sudan; so one would expect it to fight tooth and nail to keep the South. Yet there were many more complex factors that seem to have driven the National Congress Party of Omar Al Bashir, the current President of the Republic of Sudan, to want to shed South Sudan. The reality for him was either to lose power altogether or lose the South.

However, this interest was not one way. There were people in the SPLA from South Sudan who wanted to leave the union. But the SPLA was never united on this issue and in a series of internal debates, the movement accepted a compromise that created an opportunity for unity and if that did not work, to go for Independence.

Therefore, there was a convergence of different but compatible interests between Khartoum and the South Sudan faction of the SPLA/M for separation.

By the time the CPA was signed, the only marginalised part of the wider Sudan that had developed both the military and political capacity to effectively challenge Khartoum was South Sudan. To put it the other way, the most militarily and politically strong faction of the SPLA/M was the one largely drawn from the South.

Khartoum seems to have calculated that if it got rid of South Sudan, it would effectively break the SPLA/M down the middle, separating the strong part from the weaker one.

In Khartoum’s calculus, this would mean that the most effective fighting machine of the SPLA would have little interest in helping the other marginalised regions to fight the NCP regime. The remaining rump of the SPLA/M inside the older Sudan would now be weak and easy to crush.

It is this calculation that drove Bashir to sign the CPA, seeing it as an opportunity to rid himself of a major threat, weaken internal resistance and open the way for him to subdue what remained of that resistance.

Meanwhile, within South Sudan, there were differences too on how to deal with their allies from the other regions of Sudan. Some people in the SPLA/M felt that they should not abandon them. But doing this would undermine progress towards Independence and perhaps drag the war on for many more decades. In fact, sources say, former SPLA leader John Garang wanted to keep a unified Sudan.

He only signed the CPA, which recommended Independence for the South, because it had a clause clearly stating that both the North and the South should work for unity.

Admirers and enemies in the South and North say Garang was ambitious and wanted to be president of a bigger entity than a small “fiefdom” called South Sudan.

However, there were other voices led by Kiir, Garang’s deputy and current president of South Sudan. These felt that unity was an unrealistic ideal and separation a more realistic objective. The clause that both sides should work for unity and separate if that ideal failed to work was the key compromise between the Garang and the Kiir camps of the SPLA/M that made the CPA possible.

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