An all out war between Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan looms large as the relations between the two neighbouring countries spiralled downwards with the bombing of a street market in South Sudan which resulted in the death of a boy and injured many others. The glimpse of peace following the receding of the South Sudanese troops from the oil town of Heglig escalated into a threat of a full blown combat as the Sudanese President Al-Bashir ruled out any talks with the south claiming that the latter knew only the language of gun and ammunition.
Sudan, formerly Africa‘s largest country, has been involved in years of civil unrest since its decolonisation from Britain in 1956 which saw power being given to the northern elites based in Khartoum, resulting in the First Sudanese civil war. North Sudan predominantly has an Arab population with close ties to Egypt while south Sudan has non Arabic and Christian population. These ethnic, religious, regional and cultural differences led to years of conflict which grew rapidly into a full scale civil war that ended in 1972 with the agreement of giving religious and cultural autonomy to the south. An uneasy calm prevailed over the region for ten years from 1972 to 1983, when formation of South Sudan Autonomous region helped the southern part enjoy self governance. The second Sudanese civil war from 1983 to 2005 ensued between the Sudanese government and the Sudan people’s Liberation Army fighting for the independence of the southern provinces after the then President Nimeiry declared all Sudan an Islamic state thereby terminating the South Sudan Autonomous Region. The resulting conflict lasted over two decades displacing an estimated four million and killing an estimated two million; leaving the country in disarray, economy in shambles, poverty rampant and zero investment. Peace was consolidated in 2005 with the signing of the Nairobi comprehensive peace agreement which gave six years of autonomy to the south to be followed by a referendum of independence. The referendum in 2011 was in favour of secession and on 9 June 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born.
Neighbours in Conflict
But all is not well as the contention continues over the demarcation of the international borders as well as resource sharing. Both the countries depend heavily on the oil fields around the border lands. The two nations’ economic development too remain inter dependent. South Sudan which owns the major chunk of oil resources needs the help of Sudan to export its oil. Sudan demanding export transit fees seized shipment of South Sudan oil; in retaliation South Sudan shut down the oil production. The clashes that flared in these oil rich territories along the borders have affected economies of both the regions adversely. Many international firms including ONGC Videsh Ltd have discontinued production from the regions. The south’s occupation of the Heglig oil field has exposed an alarming dimension of the unacknowledged war that has been going on in the backdrop for quite some time. Though under international pressure, the South withdrew its troops, the hard liners in Sudan have raised the cry for the military forces to enter Juba. Heglig under the occupancy of South Sudan was thoroughly destroyed and looted further escalating the confrontation. President Bashir has vowed to liberate South Sudan from what he calls an ‘insect’ regime, a move that could be perilous as well as anarchic. The tensions have also intensified racist crimes against ethnic Southerners in Sudan, the latest being the burning down of a church. The government of both the regions are also accused of backing the proxy rebel factions of the other country, something which they have both denied vehemently. The foes are mobilising troops and weapons as they look ahead to the fall of the rival government leading to mounting tensions in the entire East African region.
The Road Ahead
Like all wars, any confrontation between the two countries would only lead to more agony and havoc. The countries have enough problems within their borders itself. The economic crisis persisting, lack of oil revenue would result in both struggling with high cost of war. There are also rebel groups inside the countries that the governments have to deal with. Malnutrition, poverty, rising cost etc have mounted the hardships of people on either sides of the border. Countless deaths, hordes of injuries and thousands of fleeing refugees have culminated in horrifying humanitarian crisis. The international community and the African union have urged both parties to return to the negotiating table. China which has trade ties and diplomatic relations with both the nations could play a major role in the negotiating process. In fact, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is on a trip to China seeking support and help, which emphasizes China’s importance in the region, though it is clear that the Asian giant which has abundant oil reserves in the area is treading the path carefully. Issues of border demarcation, border monitoring mechanisms, division of national debt, export transit fee, residency conditions, and existing refugee crisis should be resolved amicably under the guidance of UN and AU. Both the countries must move on from their bitter history, looking forward at the long term interests of their respective nations and the African continent as a whole to ensure peace, respect and stability along their borders and among their people. Dialogue can win them the war that guns cannot.