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How yesterday’s agreement on oil could lead to war between the Sudans, not avert it


How yesterday’s agreement on oil could lead to war between the Sudans, not avert it

By Tim Flatman,

August 4, 2012 (JUBA) - The “international community”, a nebulous concept at the best of times, achieved rare unity in its desire for and welcoming of an agreement between South Sudan and Sudan on oil transportation fees, disguising its self-interest by arguing the agreement will stop the two countries from returning to war. But will it really?

From the outset, most governments patronisingly lectured South Sudan
as to why halting the export of oil was not in its interests, rather
than trying to understand the logic behind a decision which achieved
near-unanimous support within the country. It should not be difficult
to understand why Southerners, knowing that their oil is a finite
resource, would balk at paying over the odds to a hostile government
with a track record of using oil money to wage war against South Sudan
and other marginalised areas, and prefer to leave the oil in the
ground until a more reasonable deal is achieved. I am also wary of a
Western-centric mindset that assumes, informed by the post-war
European experience, that economic integration inevitably promotes
peaceful relations. Sudan and South Sudan are not France and Germany.
While oil is exported through Sudan, it will always be subject to
day-to-day political machinations between Sudan and South Sudan, with
potential for Sudan to confiscate oil without payment or South Sudan
to threaten to halt production to gain leverage on other issues.
Nonetheless, I admit that outside South Sudan, I am very lonely in
arguing this case.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks in South Sudan two day ago gave a wink and a
nod to a Southern perspective on the dispute, acknowledging that the
Republic of South Sudan Government’s actions “brought Khartoum to the
negotiating table”. But when she argued simplistically that “a
percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing”, she
either did not understand or chose to ignore the position outlined
above that the oil is not going anywhere, and better for it to be used
to develop South Sudan in the future than to pay for bombs to be
dropped from Antonovs in the present, whether on Southerners in
Northern Bahr-Ghazal or their brothers and sisters in the Nuba

It is always dangerous to write about specifics when, as at the time
of writing, there appears to be much disagreement on what the details
of any agreement actually are. Transportation fees of $9.48, $11, $15
and $24/25 dollars have been variously and confidently reported by
different media. But there is already a feeling within South Sudan
that the South Sudanese Government gave away too much in its draft
proposal, the Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation between
the Republics of South Sudan and Sudan. The assumption that any
agreement on oil transportation fees came about because the US
threatened South Sudan in the knowledge that it had more leverage over
South Sudan than over Sudan, prioritising a more immediate resumption
of oil exports over a fair agreement, is giving rise to an
anti-Americanism within South Sudan that has previously been reserved
for specific individuals like Scott Gration and John Kerry. The higher
the figure, the more considerable grassroots resentment towards the US
is likely to be.

If it was undoubtedly true that a deal on oil will help the two
countries avoid war, it would be easier to forgive the US and other
sections of the international community, for acting in its interest.
But this is not clear. Unhelpfully, international media has so far
reported that implementation of any deal on oil is subject to
Khartoum’s security concerns being resolved. But it must also be
subject to other outstanding CPA issues being resolved, notably border
demarcation and the final status of Abyei. If a deal on oil is
de-linked from resolution of these issues, they will never be
resolved. Khartoum has little interest in reaching agreement on them.
Once the flow of oil resumes and appears to be guaranteed into the
future, the international community will lose interest in promoting
agreement on other outstanding issues. But without resolving them, the
question of the border, and particularly of Abyei’s status, will at
some point drag the two countries back to war. In demanding that oil
exports do not resume before these issues are resolved, the Republic
of South Sudan Government is not being unreasonable. It is effectively
saying it wants to avoid a return to war at all costs. No-one
understands the cost of war more than the South Sudanese. Can they be
blamed for adopting this position?

Oil exports must not, therefore, resume before these issues have been
resolved. That means actually resolving them, not signing a further
agreement and putting in place a framework for resolving them. The
permanent residents of Abyei know too well that agreement on a future
date for exercising their self-determination is not a guarantee of it
happening. In this context, the date proposed for an Abyei Referendum
in the draft Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation makes
good sense. According to the Minister of Information in the Government
of South Sudan, the process for resuming oil exports will take
approximately three months. Abyei is the next item on the agenda for
discussion between Presidents Kiir and Bashir in September. If – and
this is a big if – agreement was reached on a 30 November 2012
referendum date, the process of exporting oil could be restarted on
the proviso that it would only be completed, in mid-December, if an
Abyei Referendum had successfully taken place.

There are other arguments for a 30 November 2012 Abyei Referendum
date. It avoids the complications and insecurity likely to arise if a
referendum date coincides with annual migrations. While migrations
last year were relatively peaceful (notwithstanding a large amount of
cattle raiding, with more Dinka Ngok cattle stolen than in any
previous year), it is unlikely that this will be the case in a further
year, especially if Misseriya are seen to be holding up an Abyei
Referendum. Experience from last year also showed that Misseriya
migrations were easily infiltrated by PDF (Popular Defence Force)
elements. PDF elements attempted to cause insecurity and division
between other Misseriya and Dinka Ngok returnees on numerous
occasions. In one case in February 2012 they were successful, and
killed a Southerner despite local people warning UNISFA a day
beforehand about suspicious movements. Holding a referendum well
before migrations are due to take place is the only way of preventing
insecurity during an Abyei Referendum.

UNISFA are widely and rightly praised for their actions in defending
civilians and forestalling conflict, but there are growing concerns at
their tendency to assume a governmental role, taking on decisions that
should rightly be left to Abyei Administration. The divvying up of
plots within Abyei market, granting them to Arab “traders” universally
recognised amongst the Dinka Ngok community as former soldiers, will
continue to provoke rather than relieve tension, and the sensible
local proposal to relocate the market to an area near Todac, away from
residential areas, has been ignored. UNISFA have failed to deal
satisfactorily with cattle raiding, reluctant to assume a role not
within their mandate and rightly the responsibility of a
desperately-needed local police force. They have come under criticism
for spending too long interviewing the victims of cattle raiding,
while the cattle themselves are moved far away from their owners and
become more difficult to trace. There are also concerns that they have
been misled as to how certain water-points have been used, by the very
elements that previously rendered these water-points unusable. Raising
these points should not be misinterpreted as criticism of UNISFA, who
are doing the best they can in an incredibly challenging environment.
UNISFA cannot be expected to be have the historical and contextual
understanding to deal with these problems as effectively as local
civil servants under an Abyei Administration could.

With proposals for a temporary Joint Administration perceived by the
local community as a way of setting a precedent as to who resides in
the Area, the only certain way of enabling functions UNISFA has
swallowed to be taken on by more appropriate authorities with proper
experience, is to finally resolve the status of the area. Otherwise,
as UNISFA continues to take on civil affairs, it will find itself
increasingly out of its depth, and the prospects of localised conflict
more likely. Again, this demands a referendum date that is sooner
rather than later.

A 30 November 2012 date will of course require agreement on other
issues, including voter eligibility and the formation of an Abyei
Referendum Commission. But there are sensible proposals within the
Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation on these points too,
which at the very least could serve as a starting point for
negotiations. The international community must insist, as it did on
oil transportation fees, on a specific response from Khartoum as to
how voter eligibility should be determined and verified, rather than
an argument in principle which is unimplementable in practice.
Registration should not be seen as a barrier – the target population
is relatively small and very concentrated: registration can be
completed quickly compared to the experience of South Sudan’s
referendum. However, assistance to Ngok returnees North of the River
Kiir will need to be upscaled. More will seek to return and sooner, if
a referendum date is scheduled. Already the numbers have outstretched
predictions, with an estimated 17,000 (5,000 in Abyei town, and 12,000
in the villages North of the Kiir around Abyei town) reported
yesterday by local sources. INGOs are not ready to provide the
necessary assistance and it will take a political decision by the
international community for sufficient assistance to be provided
should the entire community return.

Returning to our original premise, will yesterday’s agreement on oil
make war more or less likely? The truth is that it could do either. If
the international community continues to engage at the level it has
done over oil; if it adopts and aggressively promotes the proposals in
the RSS Government’s AFRC on border demarcation and Abyei, and ensures
these issues are resolved before oil exports resume, today’s agreement
will have been a step along the road to sustainable peace. If it pats
itself on the back, congratulating itself on a job well-done and
insisting that oil exports now resume as soon as possible regardless
of agreements on other outstanding issues being reached and
implemented, it will in the medium-term have furthered the prospects
of war in the name of its own short-term economic interests.

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