By Luka Biong Deng
September 9, 2013 - The last summit between President Salva and Bashir has been by all standards successful after the two countries felt the enormous cost of their bad relations. The two countries by the design of the policies of the old Sudan are economically interdependent. As a landlocked country with its economy depending entirely on oil resources, it is absolutely critical for the South to have good relations with its neighbours, particularly those countries with seaports. However, as South Sudan continues to rely entirely on oil resources, its national strategic choices and interests will be largely shaped by the interests of its neighbouring countries through which it can export its oil. It is strategically critical for South Sudan to diversify its oil export outlets and its economy so that it can have independent strategic choices for its future.
Since the formation of the new cabinet, it seems South has made strategic choice and for good reasons to normalize its relations with Sudan. This was clearly stated very well by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and recently by the new Vice President of the South. This clear foreign policy to normalize relations with Sudan came at the time Sudan threatened with the ultimatum to shut down by 6th September 2013 the flow of the oil of the South. Interestingly, the visit of President Salva to Khartoum coincided very well with the dateline set by Khartoum to shut down the flow of the oil of the South. Now the flow of the oil of the South for export through Sudan is now secured with no attached conditions.
Some analysts see Khartoum has played its cards very well with its ultimatum to shut down the flow of the oil of the South as it made the South to feel more desperate for exporting its oil through Sudan. Although one is aware that President Salva has picked dedicated nationalists to his new cabinet, some analysts see that the new cabinet of the South was formed in such a way to reassure Khartoum that the South is serious in normalizing its relations with Sudan. In fact one would say that Sudan is more desperate for the flow of the oil of the South through its territory. The generous funding from the Arab countries to Sudan has dried up as most of these countries are awakened by the perils of the political Islam that is being nurtured by Sudan. In my encounter with Mr Qutbi El-Mahdi, one of the leaders of NCP, in Sudan-South Sudan conference in Germany, I stressed that Sudan suffers from the “curse of political Islam” that will eventually lead to the demise of the NCP regime in Sudan.
The recognition by the Sudan Central Bank that Sudan has lost $5 billion out of $20 billion worth of oil of the South that was not exported through its territory clearly underlines the economic desperation of Sudan. In fact the South did not lose any oil proceeds because of stoppage of the flow of its oil through Sudan as the oil is still a reserve but it is Khartoum that was losing. One would say that the threat of Sudan to stop the flow of the oil of the South was a paper tiger. Besides the apparent loss of $5 billion, the Sudanese pound lost more than half of its value in the foreign exchange market and that resulted in hyperinflation.
With oil stoppage and drying up of funding from the Arab countries, Sudan is now in the process of making hard policy choice of lifting subsidies on basic commodities; a recipe to political unrest that may threaten the political survival of NCP. In fact the visit of President Salva to Khartoum has done a big service and injected a new life to the regime of Bashir that was in economic coma. It is not Sudan that helped South Sudan but it is the South that helped Sudan as the flow of its oil through Sudan is indeed a life vessel to the ailing economy of Sudan that has become so dependent on the South. Apparently, South Sudan has become a new Saudi Arabia of Sudan except it does not have Makah.
On Abyei, I was not optimistic that something positive would come out from the last summit between President Salva and Bashir. As I mentioned in my last article, the minimum I was expecting from the summit was for the two Presidents to agree that they have not agreed on the AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei. Indeed the summit has delivered on that as the statements by the two Presidents clearly reflected the divergent views of the two countries. While President Salva stressed on the conduct of Abyei Referendum as proposed by the AU Panel, Bashir demanded the formation of local institutions first before the conduct of referendum or and to work for a lasting settlement to avoid that Abyei "be a dagger" in the relations between the two countries.
The statement in the joint communiqué that “the two Presidents have pledged to continue constructive dialogue to resolve the remaining issues including Abyei and border disputed areas” did not reflect at all what happened in the summit. In fact South Sudan Minister of Foreign Affairs summarized the outcome of the summit on Abyei very well when he said that the discussion on Abyei could not continue when Bashir insisted on the formation of joint administration first and President Salva had to stop and summit ended on Abyei. This is very important as the AUPSC is waiting for the result of the summit on Abyei. I am sure President Salva might have informed President Mbeki during his recent meeting in Juba that he differed with Bashir on Abyei and that he did not agree with Bashir to engage again with him over Abyei. President Salva might have stressed to President Mbeki that the AUPSC should now take its final decision on Abyei rather than deferring it again to him and Bashir.
Abyei should not be a dagger in the relations between the two countries. The history of Abyei clearly shows the pivotal role played by Abyei in cementing the relations between the North and South Sudan. Abyei has been described as a bridge between the North and North and such description is now being scorned by the people of Abyei. In fact the AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei puts Abyei to play strategic role in strengthening the relations between the two countries. In order to avoid Abyei not to become “bagger” in the relations between the two countries, the AUPSC must endorse, in its next meeting in New York, the AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei and to initiate immediate process for the conduct of Abyei Referendum Commission without deferring the issue to the UN Security Council.
Given the divergent positions of the two Presidents over Abyei, the AUPSC can reconcile these positions by deciding to establish the Abyei Referendum Commission as per the AU Proposal and to conduct referendum within specific period and to ask the two countries to establish, within specific period, the local institutions as per the June 2011 agreement to assist in the conduct of the referendum. If either of the two countries failed to comply with these decisions expected to be taken by the AUPSC, then the AU Council may decide to forward the AU Proposal on the final status to the UN Security Council for endorsement and implementation with Abyei to be temporary protectorate area of the UN until a referendum is conducted.
Indeed by rejecting the conduct of Abyei referendum in October 2013 after the generous and gesture of goodwill shown by President Salva in normalizing relations of the two countries, Bashir is deliberately making Abyei as dagger in the new era of improving relations. As the two Presidents are unable to make any headway on the final status of Abyei and without any decision to be taken by the AUPSC, the Ngok Dinka will be left with no any other option but to document their aspirations of the final status of their area. With the right decisions expected to be taken by the AUPSC in its next meeting and with support from the international community, I am confident that Abyei can be transformed to be a catalyst for nurturing good relations between South Sudan and Sudan and to deny Bashir to making Abyei a bagger in the South Sudan-Sudan relations.
Luka Biong Deng is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior member of South Sudan’s ruling SPLM. He can be reached at email@example.com.