BY Magdi El Gizouli
September 8, 2013 - Khartoum received President Kiir of South Sudan with great relief. Even Tayeb Mustafa’s al-Intibaha offered the important visitor a welcome note, but made sure its readers received a florid interpretation of President Kiir’s salutary bow before the Sudanese flag in Khartoum airport. The more imaginative said a few tears came down his bearded cheek. President Bashir dropped his threat to block South Sudan’s oil exports through Sudan and President Kiir promised to halt all support to rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) and their allies in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) including sealing the border to the movement of insurgents. The two presidents effectively avoided discussion of the dispute over Abyei, weary of the Abyei constituencies in their orbit. President Kiir said his government backs the African Union (AU) proposal to hold the Abyei referendum next October while President Bashir affirmed that establishment of the agreed on civilian institutions in Abyei must precede the referendum. The routine positions drew criticism from leaders of both the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya. That said, the two presidents appeared ready to freeze the situation in Abyei as long as the terms of their tenuous trade-off, continued flow of South Sudan oil in return for South Sudan’s commitment to suppress the activities of the SPLA/M-N along the border, were adhered to.
The current thaw of relations between Sudan and South Sudan is also partially a result of the altered domestic political environment in both countries. President Kiir suspended the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Secretary General and chief negotiator with Sudan, Pagan Amum, arguably the SPLA/M-N’s greatest friend in South Sudan, and put him under investigation, and dismissed his minister Deng Alor, the prominent Ngok Dinka politician, on allegations of corruption. In Sudan, appetite for confrontation with South Sudan has become hard to sustain, even with the continued propaganda of al-Intibaha, considering the economic hardships facing the country as a consequence of the loss of oil revenues, and the resistance of business to the government ban on the lucrative cross-border trade with South Sudan. At a grander scale, a delegation of Sudanese businessmen joining the tycoons Usama Dawood Abdul Latif and Jamal al-Wali recently visited Juba to meet President Kiir, and the sidelines of the summit witnessed the signing of a cooperation protocol between Sudan’s employers’ union and the commerce and labor chamber in South Sudan. The two announced the formation of a joint council and plans for a joint investment bank.
Whether the current improvements in relations between the two Sudans will continue is contingent primarily on the domestic situation in the two countries, namely President Kiir’s ability to centralize power and guard it, and President Bashir’s ability to quell opposition to his continued rule from outside the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and dissent within it without the need for the shield of a foreign belligerent. The President held a meeting with the National Umma Party (NUP) chief Sadiq al-Mahdi as part of a public relations campaign to popularize the proposal of a national reconciliation, and the press continued to speculate about possible candidates for the new cabinet, from the opposition parties and also the ‘reform’ protagonists in the NCP, including the former National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) boss Salah Gosh.
Reflecting the changing winds from Juba, the SPLA/M-N declared a month long unilateral ceasefire in solidarity with the victims of the recent heavy rains and floods in the country. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) dismissed the declaration as a political gesture addressed to the international community but individual lawmakers in Khartoum welcomed it. Significantly, the government and the SPLA/M-N announced their readiness to allow the stalled polio vaccination campaign in rebel-held areas in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile to proceed in October. Details of the temporary ceasefire and the delivery of the vaccines are yet to be agreed upon. The government of South Kordofan offered opposition parties half the positions in the new state cabinet, and declared willingness to re-employs members of the SPLA/M-N dismissed from government service on outbreak of the insurgency in 2011. Judging by the precedent of its dealings with Chad in containing the operations of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur, Khartoum will probably be inclined to intensify its military campaign against the SPLA/M-N while seeking political accommodation with leaders of the Nuba in South Kordofan, a strategy it has been actively. The As the SPLA/M-N’s Yasir Arman spoke of truce, the National Assembly in Khartoum urged leaders of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) to scale up their recruitment efforts to assist the SAF ahead of the new fighting season. NCP politicians said one other season and it’s all over. Well, President Bashir said the same in 2004 as the war in Darfur was just warming up; the officially dated mayhem in Darfur turned ten this year. Khartoum’s calculations are clear to read, but it is the response of the SPLA/M-N to the shifting coordinates around it that will determine the future course of the conflict that now threatens to ‘Darfurise’ the New Sudan.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org