By Rashid Abdi
Sudan and South Sudan’s relationship is of vital importance to resolving conflicts in both countries. Khartoum, and other countries in the region, clearly benefit from a stable South Sudan.
Once-fraught relations between the two countries have improved in recent years, helped by substantive discussions over shared interests, including oil exports, support for armed groups, and border security. Khartoum should now use its influence in Juba to seek better regional cooperation and a peaceful resolution of internal and cross-border conflicts.
A more sophisticated Sudanese approach that ensures southern armed groups are part of a more inclusive, and thereby stable, government in Juba, is in Khartoum’s own best interests. A constructive Khartoum-Juba relationship is likely to be significant, for instance, in the U.S. government’s mid-2017 assessment of its recent decision to ease sanctions on Sudan.
Do not support South Sudanese armed groups
There is currently fighting in several parts of South Sudan, a disaster for those in the affected areas. But violence is not on the scale of the 2013-15 civil war, and is unlikely to escalate dramatically, partly thanks to Khartoum’s refusal to support rebel groups.
When the former First Vice President of South Sudan, Riek Machar, arrived in Khartoum after fleeing fighting in Juba in July 2016, the Sudanese government severely restricted his capacity to re-start his rebellion. He then left for South Africa, and was subsequently denied re-entry to Sudan in November 2016; he was eventually obliged to return to South Africa.
Khartoum’s actions are central to determining whether South Sudan moves towards sustainable peace or falls back into a complex and multi-layered conflict Ending armed rebellion in South Sudan is the primary responsibility of South Sudan’s transitional government who must reach out to armed groups to make peace. Yet violence in South Sudan is most deadly and protracted when warring parties receive support from neighbouring states.
Khartoum should continue resisting requests from South Sudanese opposition leaders to arm or provide other forms of support to rebel fighters.
Political rather than military support
Sudan can go further by using its influence with Juba to implement relevant parts of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), to which Sudan was a signatory and guarantor in August 2015. Sudan should also work with other Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, a regional body) member states – notably Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya – to support Juba’s commitment to conduct a national dialogue with opposition political parties and armed groups.
Sudan’s visible engagement with these processes is critical to overcoming the trust deficit between Juba and armed groups.
As well as supporting peace in South Sudan, Khartoum should accept that there is no military solution to its own domestic conflicts in in the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile states) and Darfur. These conflicts have cost billions of dollars and Sudan should seek a sustainable political resolution, supported by regional actors, including Uganda.
For recently improved relations between Khartoum, Juba and Kampala to translate into real regional harmony, Sudan should honour its commitment to a Cessation of Hostilities in both Darfur and the Two Areas and reconvene negotiations on humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
To help peace take hold in frontier areas, Sudan should also consider innovative approaches to border security that are based on the complex realities of armed groups and ethnic communities in both countries. Leaders are drawing from examples such as the 2010 agreement between Chad and Sudan which halted support for one another’s rebels.
Without such measures, improved relations with Juba will not be sufficient to resolve Sudan’s own internal conflicts, which have domestic drivers, require their own political solution, and are not simply the expression of a Sudanese proxy war with South Sudan.
The benefits of better relations with Juba
Overall, Sudan can benefit from improved relations with Juba in three ways.
First, by agreeing that it will not support South Sudanese rebel groups, it can continue to demand that Juba, in turn, deny support to Sudanese rebels in the Two Areas and Darfur.
Secondly, improved relations will bring much needed economic benefits. December’s three-year oil deal profits both sides and improves the terms of South Sudan’s transit fee regime. Production is also re-starting in Unity state which will increase exports. The new index-linked arrangement means that fees will reflect global oil prices, rather than simply being a fixed rate which, at a time of low prices and conflict-suppressed production, contributed to South Sudan’s economic challenges.
Khartoum should understand that the oil agreement, together with support for security arrangements in South Sudan’s Unity state that favour stability, ties both countries more closely in a regime of economic interdependence - to their mutual benefit. This makes it less likely that conflict will break out again along the shared border.
Third, the conflict in South Sudan is a major preoccupation for the international community. Continuing to play a constructive role in its resolution and preventing further escalation, coupled with renewed efforts to resolve its own internal conflicts peacefully, will help Khartoum lock in its improving relations with the U.S. and the European Union. This will increase the chances for complete sanctions removal and debt relief.
Diplomacy, not destabilisation, is Sudan’s winning strategy in South Sudan.
Rashid Abdi is Horn of Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.