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Sudan and South Sudan are tipping into catastrophic War:

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An Urgent Recalibration of Diplomatic Measures and Pressures is Required

By Eric Reeves

April 25, 2012 — Traveling to South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains in January 2003, months after a ceasefire agreement had been signed between North and South, an unnerving conviction, a grim certainty, was expressed to me by every military and civil society official I spoke with, including John Garang, the deceased former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Sudanese vice president: if war comes again to Sudan, it will be the most destructive of all our wars. This was an extraordinary observation coming from people who had just begun to emerge from a civil war that claimed well over 2 million lives and displaced between 4 and 5 million civilians. The prediction was made not in a bellicose spirit, but as a matter of fact, something that should be clear to anyone who understood the nature of the military forces in the North and the South, and the conduct of war by northern governments, including the current National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime, between 1983 and 2005. In recent weeks, those terrible premonitions from 2003 seem on the verge of becoming a vast and uncontrollable reality.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) leadership has long understood, according to numerous Sudanese I have spoken to in the last decade, that there would be no international guarantors of the security arrangements in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), completed in 2004 and finally signed on January 9, 2005. The SPLM/A was adamant about maintaining its own army, because in the event that the NIF/NCP regime violated the peace, no other country would offer meaningful help or protection to the South.

The moment they had feared appears almost at hand. In the last few weeks, the SPLA has repeatedly repulsed a (northern) Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) assault on the border settlement of Tishwin in Unity State, South Sudan. In the process of driving the SAF north, the SPLA temporarily seized the critical oil hub of Heglig, which lies in a complicated and contested border area (Heglig is called Panthou by most Southerners). The fighting was particularly significant in the wake of Khartoum’s May 2011 seizure of the large Abyei area just to the west of Heglig---another contested area of immense significance to southerners, and in which Heglig had been placed by the CPA’s Abyei Boundaries Commission.

The SPLA withdrew forces from Heglig at the behest of the international community (or, according to Khartoum, pressure from the SAF), but the situation is now explosive. As of today, the northern Sudanese regime was openly bombing targets across the border from Heglig. The NIF/NCP regime, particularly its increasingly militarist generals, was humiliated by the ease of the SPLA victory at Heglig. A vehement, angry rhetoric dominates all its pronouncements, despite concerns about imperiling the infrastructure at a site that produces half of what remains of northern oil production. (Much damage has already been reported, most of it from inaccurate bombing and shelling by the SAF.)

The leadership in Juba, South Sudan, initially demanded as a condition of withdrawal that the UN assure that Heglig would not be used to stage further attacks on the South. (The recent major assault on South Sudan was not the first in recent weeks, and has been accompanied by a steady increase in aerial attacks on southern territory.) But there has been no follow-up on creating a UN buffer zone between the two forces. Further conflict seems inevitable without meaningful diplomatic engagement, which we have yet to see.

Sudan’s long civil war was fought between a guerilla insurgency and a national army with substantial assistance from proxy militias. If the recent fighting precipitates war between North and South Sudan, it will be a conflict between two very powerful military forces. The South would have better logistics, communications, and transport than it did during the 1983-2005 conflict, while the SAF will again be fighting far away from Khartoum. The SAF will also have a far more difficult time forcibly conscripting recruits from regions it formerly counted on, including Blue Nile, South Kordofan, Darfur, and South Sudan itself, since it is presently waging war in all those territories.

Perhaps most important, the people of the South generally feel that if war comes, they will be fighting for their survival, given Khartoum’s unconstrained military ambitions. SPLA morale is correspondingly much higher than in the SAF, which is spread very thin. There are credible reports about splits within the SAF over the decision to go to war with South Sudan. Moreover, all evidence suggests that the SAF is being badly mauled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North in months of brutal fighting within the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. Khartoum’s response has been an increasing reliance on bombing, long-range artillery, advanced rocket launchers---"stand-off weaponry"---and the ruthless determination to starve and deny humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba Mountains as a way of ending the insurgency. But crushing defeats of the SAF in military encounters with the SPLA-North are increasingly in evidence, and this is taking a significant toll on the larger military force.

Over the past year, fighting has spread from Abyei to South Kordofan to Blue Nile to the border regions, and in each instance Khartoum has been the clear aggressor, evidently convinced that it can somehow seize southern oil fields or create a situation on the ground that will strengthen its negotiating position. The SAF began (or, rather, resumed) indiscriminate aerial assaults on civilians in November 2010, shortly before the southern self-determination referendum. This has accelerated in recent months and weeks; the very recent bombing of Bentiu, a major city and the capital of Unity State, signals a willingness to attack civilians on a large scale.

For its part, the leadership in Juba is bewildered and dismayed. While appropriately fearing the military threat posed by Khartoum, the SPLM/A did not anticipate during peace negotiations that it would be abandoned diplomatically, allowing Khartoum to pick which elements of the CPA Protocols it would observe and which it would ignore. To understand the current dire situation, we must remember that the international community never secured from Khartoum good faith participation in negotiations over delineation and demarcation of the North/South border, per the explicit terms of the CPA.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir knows that, as the leader of an impoverished new nation with few friends, he must place the diplomatic ball in the international court if negotiations with Khartoum to reduce the present level of violence are to succeed. Unfortunately, he was denied the assistance he needed to de-escalate the fighting in the Tishwin/Heglig area. Instead, Kiir and the South Sudanese leadership stood accused by the UN, the AU, the EU, the UK, and the United States of military aggression against northern Sudanese territory, even though all evidence---from UN observers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), journalists on the ground, and oil workers---points to Khartoum as the clear aggressor in both major assaults on Tishwin.

Some of the confusion in international reporting comes from a failure to follow the course of the dispute over the Abyei border region, which Khartoum seized a year ago. Following Khartoum’s military assault on Abyei town in May 2008, the southern leadership---convinced that the matter could not be resolved militarily---concluded that "final and binding" arbitration of the Abyei border issue was essential, and succeeded in bringing the matter before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague. Though in many ways unfavorable to Juba, the PCA ruling was nonetheless accepted. Khartoum’s land grab last year flouted the court’s "final and binding" ruling, issued in July 2009, which defined the area in which the critical Abyei self-determination referendum was to be held. This abrogation of a key protocol called into serious question Khartoum’s commitment to honor the CPA.

The PCA ruling, it should be noted, did nothing to settle where the "1 January 1956 border" lies. It had no mandate to make such a determination, which was to be determined by post-CPA negotiations between Juba and Khartoum. But feeling no real international pressure, Khartoum never engaged in good faith negotiations on the North/South border, which has shifted steadily southward since 1956. Indeed, Khartoum used its military to prevent demarcation of areas in Abyei that had already been delineated, as international leaders rarely acknowledge. And yet the South has mostly faced one-sided denunciations for its incursion into Heglig, from the U.S. State Department, the UK minister for Africa, the chief EU foreign policy official, and the African Union. These international actors, along with the UN Security Council, are silent on the seizure of Abyei even though they presume to judge the location of the North/South border, an issue that is very much on the negotiating table so long as Abyei remains occupied by Khartoum. These peremptory judgments unwittingly but effectively encourage the regime to remain intransigent in any future negotiations on the location of the border.

In one of the few sensible diplomatic statements during the present crisis, Norway proposed a Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mission, reiterating a previous proposal that was stymied by Khartoum. Juba likely wishes for nothing so much as an active and robust JBVM Mission. Only Khartoum benefits from ambiguous borders, and an ability to project military power without a clearly defined tripwire. The ambiguity of the border has also permitted the North to build a secret "tie-in" oil pipeline in Heglig that would have had the capacity to siphon off as much as 25,000 barrels of crude from southern oil fields per day.

The outlook for North and South Sudan is extremely bleak. There is no evidence of countervailing forces to bring Khartoum back from its present characterization of the fighting as "South Sudan’s blatant invasion of Heglig"---an "invasion" that requires a massive military retaliation. If there is to be a chance of peace, the factitious parceling out of equal blame to Juba and Khartoum must end. To be sure, the odds of changing this decades-long pattern seem exceedingly small next to the likelihood of war.

At the same time, the UNMISS force in South Sudan needs better transport and logistics to ensure that it can re-deploy more rapidly, and should include a Border Verification and Monitoring team like the one Norway proposed. Khartoum will resist, and may make deployment impossible in many areas; this fact should then be made widely known. UNMISS must also be freed of UN political manipulation. Currently, UN political officials conceal most of the mission’s findings despite the fact that they make clear that the military actions reported by Southerners and the SPLA have occurred. UN political suppression of observations and investigations that have direct bearing in assigning responsibility for the current military situation is deeply irresponsible.

For border delineation to begin in earnest, substantial diplomatic commitment will be needed. Immediately following delineation of any section of the border, the UN should begin demarcation as a means of creating a credible, effective tripwire along the North/South border to prevent, if possible, future aggressive military actions against the South by Khartoum.

In all likelihood, none of these measures will be taken, with Khartoum’s obduracy used to justify diplomatic fecklessness. But the responsibility for that war will not be Khartoum’s alone. It will be shared by the international leaders who chose the expedient route, even with millions of lives at risk.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.



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  • 26 April 2012 05:09, by Loko El Pollo

    THANK MR PROFESOR FOR ELOQUENT AND TO THE POINT AURTICLE.THE WORLD UNDERSTIMATE THE STRENGTH OF SOUTHERNERS.THEY THINK WE CAN BE JUST BULLIED AND KEPT QUIET BECAUSE OF THE SECESSION.THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE NORTHERN LAND WAS ONCE BELONG TO THE SOUTH.ALL WE NEED ARE ANTI-AIRCRAFS MISILES AND THIS NOSEY NEIGHBOR WILL BE SILENCE MILITARILY.CURRENTLY WE HAVE PROPER LEADERSHIP ISSUES.

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  • 26 April 2012 05:41, by MGAAA

    Great work Eric! We owe you a lot for seeing and saying the truth. In fact, you have learnt in details the arrogance, lies and behaviour of Khartoum regime. We’ll take note of the International Community henceforth.

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  • 26 April 2012 08:20, by mohammed ali

    What sort of human being you are? In the process of driving the SAF north, the SPLA temporarily seized the critical oil hub of Heglig, which lies in a complicated and contested border area (Heglig is called Panthou by most Southerners)What a lier? This was not the first attack.Salva Kiir said that we recovered Heglig. He said it for the 2nd time!

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    • 26 April 2012 08:25, by mohammed ali

      With your lies , war & hate monger you pushed SS to war. You want the pple of SS to die for your agenda.Your hate & monger is driving SS to destruction , devastation & femine. You wont donate a single penny for the poor of SS, yet you want them to die for your cause. Leave us alone, we would have solved all problems , if you didn’t interfer.

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      • 28 April 2012 20:04, by Daniel Buolmawei

        Mohammed, you hate Dr. Reeves for nothing. Dr. Reeves isn’t the problem. The problems are criminal leaders in Khartoum who are using Sudanese people to protect themselves indictments and possible executions due to their untold crimes against humanity they have commiting in Sudan. The reason for your hate is because Dr. Reeves is exposing these crimes while you want these crimes to remain unknown.

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  • 26 April 2012 17:02, by chromebars

    There is always two sides to a story, I am sure the north can pick out it own grievances. The point is thus not to perpetuate this circle; look at the Israeli-Palestine conflict that has been raging for the last 40 yrs over land and resources and religion and culture. The solution to these issues and many others is quite simple believe it or not; but the problem must first be identified....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:07, by chromebars

    ....continue: The problem is man’s inability to reconcile the following duality in life: Within division there is unity and within unity there is division. This is the profound state of life and stems from man’s relationship with god and creation and the purpose of man on earth. Life is the interrelationship of the billions if not trillions of living things that are by necessity different....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:11, by chromebars

    ...continue: Without these differences there would be not point in living or indeed life since life could not experience being alive; thus there must be tension. This realisation should not be to the detriment of life since there is unity is this difference in that all life share in the same spirit this is god, which provides the laws under which these difference live in harmony....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:16, by chromebars

    ....continue. Thus religious, cultural, racial difference are superficial. In order to over come these difference which are the sources of many of our pain and conflicts (include what is happening now in north and south sudan) or leaders need to realise that there are not fighting something/someone different but themselves; literally, since we are all human beings.

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  • 26 April 2012 17:19, by chromebars

    ...continue: thus it is in all our interests to share the finite resources that the earth has provided to use in the most effective manner to the betterment not only of ourselves(the north or the south Sudanese or the Israeli or Palestinian) but for others since we will be helping ourselves at the end of the day. This may sound very altruistic....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:23, by chromebars

    ....continue: but will have a profound psychological impact on how the individual thinks, how a community thinks and how a country thinks on problems facing them and others they think of as different. Thus a concrete solutions would be for the south an north to hand over full control of all aspects of natural resource management to be held temporarily under trust of the UN.....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:27, by chromebars

    ....continue: with obvious joint oversight by south and north sudan until relations between north and south is normalised. If UN ground troops need to posted in the disputed border regions then this will also minimize possible conflicts. Otherwise the prospect of war will always loom over these two countries and the status quot will be continuous skirmishes....

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  • 26 April 2012 17:29, by chromebars

    .....continue: If all out ware resumes then hundreds of thousands of people will loose their lives for nothing since the underlying problem will still remain unsolved and the south and north will eventually be in the same place as as now. Even a blind, deaf and dumb person would see that war is not a solution.

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  • 26 April 2012 21:25, by Gordon

    Dear Mr. Reeves,
    I know both sides since more than 50 years. They have in common, that all Sudanese ordinary people suffer under their politicians, as well as we Europeans had to suffer in the last centuries under our rulers. You are quite right to criticize the north, but have in mind, that this new country, RoSS is going to cut the throat of North Sudan. The North Sudanese people are no devils

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  • 26 April 2012 21:30, by Gordon

    you can´t make them all responsible for the crimes of El Bashir. Like you and me, they only want to live under peaceful conditions. Unfortunately, I don`t see any possibility to interfere. They are condemned to find their own way. This will take more than hundred years.
    Kind regards, Gordon

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    • 28 April 2012 14:32, by Loko El Pollo

      MR GORDON,THIS PEOPLE BELIEVE WHATEVER EL BASHER AND HIS COMPANY TOLD THEM.UNLESS IF YOU ARE ANOTHER EUROPIAN SCUMBAG WHO GET HIS PAYCHECK FROM BASHEIR WORLD OF DEATHS.LOOK HOW THEY THEY WANK TO PAY 36 DOLLARS PER A BARREL OF THE CRUDE.WHAT CAN WE GAIN FROM THE OIL IF THE PRICE DROP TO 40 LIKE IN 2008.THEY SHOULD BEAR THE BRUNTS AND MATTER FACT THEY ARE MILITARILY AT ADVANTAGE THAN US.TAKE IT

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  • 29 April 2012 17:55, by Hamra

    Another excellent article! Trying to weave my way through claim and counter claim was a lot easier after reading his researches which seem balanced and fair. I hope that the ambassadors of all countries on the UN read this and give a pause for thought.

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  • 14 February 2013 19:54, by dennishobson

    Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well you have deck modular | Ssangyong a great blog here! would you like to make some invite posts on my blog?

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