Dr. Lawrence Wongo: The Intractable Crisis in the two Sudans

The volatile and dynamic crisis of the now two Sudans erupted in late March 2012 when South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army attacked, captured and occupied Heglig, a disputed oil-rich border town controlled by Sudan. The action set off a wave of international condemnation by the United Nations (UN), the European Union, the African Union (AU) and the US. The AU later issued a 7-point roadmap calling for a halt to the fighting and giving the warring parties until May 16, 2012 to resume negotiations or face sanctions.

Predictably, the Arab League took sides and condemned “South Sudan’s military aggression” against Sudan, while rejecting any claims that Heglig is a disputed area, meaning that it belongs to Sudan. In the escalating war of words President Bashir has described Southern Sudanese as “poisonous insects” that must be exterminated and threatened to topple the government in Juba. Addressing the People’s Defense Forces (Mujahideen), Bashir was quoted saying, “Despite our attempts to make them aware so that they understand and know where their interests are, they do not understand. God has created them like that. That is why the best thing to do with them is to pick a stick and make them behave well.”

Such demeanor is reminiscent of the slave mentality of the Arab Sudanese, who consider themselves the masters of the indigenous black Africans. Bashir has declared an all-out war against the South after the National Congress Party dominated parliament overwhelmingly voted to declare South Sudan an enemy state. Worse still, a reckless and inflammatory speech by an Imam at a mosque during Friday prayers incited Moslems to seize, destroy and burn down a church in Khartoum, while the police watched. South Sudanese were outraged that, by condemning their country, the UN and international community effectively validated Khartoum’s assertion that it was the victim – a strategically and morally flawed position, especially after Sudan’s invasion of Abyei last year and its repeated military provocations, including sustained aerial bombardment of Unity State, incursions deep into South Sudan, and the bad-faith approach to negotiations over unresolved issues. For South Sudan, apportioning equal blame for the conflict to both countries meant handing a strategic and diplomatic victory to Bashir, who has been indicted by the ICC for genocide, crimes against humanity and human rights violations in Darfur.

In response to enormous pressure from the UN, US and international community, South Sudan withdrew its forces from Heglig in order to maintain a positive image before the world. Sudan has since claimed that, it had recaptured Heglig. Predictably, the pace of Sudan’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns subsequently increased, as MIG jets bombed Bentiu, capital of Unity State, and its environs. The Sudan Armed Forces have also renewed its deliberate and reckless ground attacks on border towns and refugee camps, killing and injuring hundreds of innocent civilians. In another twist, Bashir cancelled talks with Salva Kiir, scheduled for March 26, 2012 in Juba. On April 7, Sudan stripped South Sudanese still living in the North of their Sudanese citizenship, in outright breach of an agreement reached days earlier. Obviously, Bashir is not ready for peace with South Sudan, because as a possible coup target himself, he has calculated that, he can secure his future by bombing the South into submission instead of negotiating. The economic cost of the war in terms of human life and equipment must be high, to say the least, and may never be known. Despite conflicting reports by each side, estimates put the number of dead in the thousands and damage to the oil infrastructure in the millions of dollars. What is baffling to South Sudanese is that, instead of discouraging and halting Sudan’s incursions into South Sudan, the US, Juba’s closest ally, joined the UN and international community to demand that, South Sudan should withdraw from Heglig, an action that implied Juba and Khartoum were equally culpable for the conflict.

South Sudan believes that negotiations still remain the means to settle its differences with Sudan. On that basis, the South has now accepted the AU roadmap to a negotiated settlement, but through a broader third party involvement than the current African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) initiative led by South African ex-President, Thabo Mbeki. The new team of mediators should include actors that have leverage and resources to move the parties toward a lasting agreement such as the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the US, and the Troika members (Britain, Norway and Italy), more or less, on the CPA model. Sudan has indicated interest in resuming talks in Addis Ababa after the UN Security Council threatened both countries with sanctions. In my opinion, it is not too late to turn the situation around by encouraging the antagonists to embrace peace. Sudan must be told in clear terms that, it can no longer expect automatic support while it continues with its aggression on South Sudan. Real peace in the Sudans hinges on two parallel processes: a process that leads to a permanent, comprehensive agreement on border demarcation, Abyei, and oil revenues; and a broad-based, inclusive process that addresses the issues of marginalized regions that underlie conflicts in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and the other marginalized regions of Sudan. Without progress on an acceptable holistic settlement of all the problems, any agreement made between Sudan and South Sudan will be untenable.