Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Divorced, But Not Entirely Separated

Just days ago, the governments of Sudan and South Sudan came to an agreement to resume oil production and exports after months of conflict along their oil-rich border. Talks earlier in the year failed completely after Khartoum initially demanded $36 per barrel of South Sudanese oil as payment for its underground transport through Sudan. The government in Juba retaliated by halting all oil production, which brought the two nations to the brink of war in April, just three months before South Sudan celebrated its first year of independence from the north. Despite the recent clashes, Western nations are hopeful that the two nations can at least cooperate economically to offset the negative impacts the halt in oil production has had for the two economies. What we should actually expect is at best a momentary embrace forged out of economic necessity, lasting until border security concerns materialize and disputes heat up over dual claims to the oil-rich areas of Heglig and Abyei.

South Sudan's presidential guard await the arrival of foreign 
dignitaries invited to participate in the country's official 
independence celebrations in the capital city of Juba.
(Photo by Steve Evans)

Recent disputes over oil production are part of what seems to be a recurring narrative in Sudan, both before and after July 2011. The Second Sudanese Civil War was caused in some part by the administration over the oil fields. Indeed, the oil trade is Sudan's (and South Sudan's) largest contributor to the nation's wealth, and when South Sudan's memorandum for independence was approved by President Bashir, 75% of the Sudan's oil reserves were ceded as well.

The First Sudanese Civil War grew out of Sudan's independence. Sudanese Christians and animists, who make up the large majority of the African population in the southern regions, expected a degree of autonomy from the north, but violence broke out as the leaders in the north were seen distancing themselves from that concession. Citing their history of exploitation under Egyptian and Arab rule, the southerners longed for the right to self-determination. But no matter their plight, the leaders in the north backed away from granting autonomy to the south, which sparked mutiny in several cities that was met with suppression. Between 1955-1972, Sudanese leaders saw multiple coup d'├ętats, military dictatorship, the outlaw of rival political parties and ultimately a concentration of power among the Sudanese Arab elite in Khartoum. In return, the south organized its guerrilla factions under the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM). Thus, not only did the south want independence, but their aspirations had teeth.

Only after intense negotiations did both sides come to a peace agreement dubbed the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. This was primarily the product of a concerted diplomatic effort with the help of the World Council of Churches and the All African Conference of Churches. The agreement called upon an exchange between Sudan and its secessionists: the rebels would disarm and administrative autonomy was granted to one of the southern states.

All was well until oil fields were discovered along the north-south border in the late 1970s.

At the time, Islamic fundamentalists heavily influenced Sudan's government and were the ones who resented the fact that their perceived ethnic rivals in the south sat atop lucrative resources and enjoyed autonomy. Thus, they pressured Sudanese President Nimeiry to strip the south of its self-rule, thereby terminating the Addis Ababa peace agreement and effectively reigniting civil war. As the country slipped back into chaos, the economic implications became enormous. Economic activity was paralyzed as oil production became an afterthought. The south also reorganized, and in 1983, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was established as a military manifestation of a dream long sought but never acquired.

Looking at both countries' situations now, there is precious little to suggest that a short-term agreement will lead to a sustainable peace in the future. The hope that independence for South Sudan created was fleeting as conflict continues to rage along the border to this day. Additionally, there are over 40 tribes in South Sudan, and cross-tribal tensions have turned violent in the past. Perhaps having a common enemy in the north will unite the tribes for now, but that social dynamic might prove too unstable for an economically crippled government in Juba to handle. Any nation united because of a common enemy can be a threat to the peace process because their solidarity depends on having a common threat. Any agreement that might dismantle the wartime harmony between opposing tribes in South Sudan might inevitably prompt Juba to engage in conflict elsewhere. For Sudan, the new oil agreement is a step in the right direction, but their worsening economy has shaped their stance at the negotiating table: Sudanese leaders initially asked for $36 per barrel of South Sudanese oil (which travels through pipelines that cut across Sudan to the Red Sea). This is clearly political and economic desperation, which can only get worse if clashes continue along the north-south border or if economic conditions worsen.

No one knows how long the cooperation will last or how fast the two economies can recover from years of devastation, but one thing is for certain: given the history of ethnic violence and tribal conflict, the oil talks will do little or nothing to ameliorate the residual grievances of almost 60 years of repression, marginalization and war.

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