Several rounds of negotiations between Khartoum and Juba to resolve a dispute over the transport of southern oil through the north has reached an impasse, raising fears of a return to war.
Khartoum – Between preparations for war and the desire to continue negotiations, official statements are being exchanged between the newest country in the world, South Sudan, and the motherland, Sudan. In the past few days, it has become clear that one side is likely to drag the other into war. But if there is a war, it will not be a civil war like before. It will be a long war of attrition between two countries and two armies.
In his latest statement on Friday, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, warned that the conflict with the North will reignite if the negotiations with Khartoum over oil – which he described as bitter – did not lead to a comprehensive agreement, which addresses disputed border issues such as those concerning the Abii region.
By including these issues in the negotiations, Mayardit is changing his country’s stand. Seven months ago, they preferred to reach an agreement on oil and then resolve border issues separately.
After the failure of the last round of negotiations in Addis Ababa, the government in Khartoum has expressed its exasperation with its southern neighbor. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced that there is no chance of reaching an agreement with Juba on oil, not even in the future. He said: “They have refused to sign and they will not sign.”
An informed government source told Al-Akhbar, that general indications clearly show that Juba is going ahead with its plans to bring down the government in Khartoum. This plan started by inflaming tensions in the Kordofan and Blue Nile states and now includes economic pressure on Khartoum by halting the flow of oil to the north. The source said that this could cause the kind of extreme economic hardship that could topple the northern government within as short a time period as two months.
Under these circumstances, it was not expected that Khartoum would stand by and do nothing, so they bared their teeth and announced that it would soon be time to activate “Plan B” against the government in the South, escalating their rhetoric for the first time since the secession of South Sudan last July.
“We have many cards in our hands to pressure the government in the South, who have used all of theirs. It is now time to look at using our security card,” declared Sudanese Foreign Minister, Ali Karti, in a press statement.
Observers believe that statements like this put an end to the hopes of the international community that the two countries would coexist and resolve their conflicts peacefully. This is now considered to be unrealistic by the Sudanese government in light of the South using all means to bring about the downfall of the regime in Khartoum.
A spokesman for the foreign ministry, Al-Obayd Murawih, gave details of the kind of security options that Sudan can use against Juba. He told Al-Akhbar: “Just like the government in the South harbors rebels against the Sudanese government, we can also provide all means of support and protection to rebels against the government in the South.”
“We can also play our economic card,” he added. “If they want to pressure us through oil, we can pressure them by not allowing foodstuffs to pass and by stopping the movement of freight.” He pointed out that these cards “are but a few examples from Plan B, which the government will activate if they come to the conclusion that there is no point in further dialogue with the South.”
Given all these indications, it has become increasingly likely that the next round of negotiations on Friday will not be decisive. Their success will depend on what the African mediators can offer. Murawih explained that one of the problems in reaching a consensus is that there is no common ground between the two sides, and this makes a solution in the Addis Ababa negotiations more elusive.
Observers believe that the inflexibility of both sides when it comes to their negotiating positions is the major obstacle to a solution for the problem of oil. There is widespread belief in Khartoum that the signing of an agreement on the issue of oil is not imminent due to statements made by the president of South Sudan a few days ago saying that the negotiations should include all issues.
South Sudan’s Cabinet Affairs Minister, Deng Alor, revealed to Al-Akhbar that his government has refused to sign the preliminary proposals for a solution by the African mediators because they are being presented without any modifications.
He said that they do not accept that Juba should give 35,000 barrels a day to Khartoum in exchange for using the North’s infrastructure to transport the oil and refine it. The government in the South accuses the African Union of bias and of trying to promote negotiating positions which serve the interests of the government in the North, according to Alor.
For their part, international companies – particularly those based in China, who are heavily invested in Sudanese oil – have preferred to remain silent. But observers believe that the key to the solution will be in the hands of these companies, whenever they decide to break their silence over the growing crisis.
The Battle for Oil
Despite oil being the backbone of economic life for both countries, it seems that obstinacy is governing the declared positions of both sides. The government of South Sudan insists that its economy will not be affected if it stops producing oil and that it has cash reserves, which will last for five years.
Similarly, the Khartoum government insists that it has sufficient economic resources, apart from oil, to enable it to revive its economy, particularly after gold ore was discovered in several provinces.
The Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Amin Hasan Omar, however, confirmed to Al-Akhbar that the economy of his country will definitely be affected if the South shuts down the oil wells. He maintains, however, that “if the economy of the North is to be up to its knees, the economy of the South will be up to its neck.”
“The South only has the oil wells, but after the Nifasha agreement, the Sudanese government took precautions in case the South seceded. It built all refineries north of the borders with the southern region. They built all infrastructure in areas where they are easily protected in terms of security,” he explains.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.