24 April 2012
Ahmed Soliman

Ahmed Soliman

Research Associate, Horn of Africa, Africa Programme


Less than a year after South Sudan’s independence, Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of a return to full-scale war.

In the last few weeks there has been increased militarization around the oil-producing border areas of Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Unity States. A battle for control of oil-producing Heglig and the aerial bombing of Bentiu by the Sudanese Armed Forces has led to noises about the declaration of war from both sides.  

The increase in tension results from a failure to implement the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement before South Sudan’s independence. Demarcation of the North-South border and reaching a deal with Sudan on sharing oil revenues are arguably the most pressing issues. The failure to properly demarcate the border area allows for contested claims of ownership over areas such as Heglig, which until last week produced almost half of Sudan’s oil. 

The rhetoric of war is a distraction from the worsening economic situation in both countries. The current military escalation provides both governments with a comfortable fall-back position: calling on their respective peoples to unite against a common enemy shifts attention away from urgent domestic pressures.

Simply put, Sudan cannot afford to live without oil and South Sudan cannot survive without it. Sudan’s economy is suffering – the independence of the South meant that it lost 75 per cent of its reserves and 20 per cent of its consumer population; key drivers of growth. Both countries remain interdependent: currently, oil from South Sudan can only reach the international market through Sudan’s pipelines, refineries and port. Discussions over a new pipeline to Lamu, Kenya are premature - it will take years to build, funding is not secured, and an interim agreement will still have to be made with Sudan.

South Sudan has lost around 95 per cent of government revenue since it shut down oil production in March; a result of Sudan taking oil as payment for alleged unpaid transit fees. Because of this, South Sudan is unable to meet its developmental challenges as a new state. Plans to build infrastructure and exploit its huge agricultural potential have been put on hold indefinitely. International donors and foreign businesses are reluctant to invest when the security risk is uncertain.

The Horn of Africa’s history serves as a warning of the potential danger to fledgling states. The optimism that followed Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia in 1993 was checked by a devastating border war between the two countries from 1998-2000, and hostilities remain today. Renewed war between Khartoum and Juba could lead to a military and humanitarian crisis that would eclipse what has been seen in Darfur.

The international community has been vocal but thus far has been unable to prevent a decline in relations, with attention focused on Syria and the financial crisis in Europe. US President Barack Obama has asked both presidents to resume negotiations and argued that conflict is not inevitable. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the European Union have done likewise. The African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel attempts at negotiation have yielded few results. Chinese mediation and consolidated efforts by Meles Zenawi, Mwai Kibaki and Thabo Mbeki, have made little headway. 

No one is relying on al-Bashir and Salva Kiir’s relationship to prevent conflict. North and south brinkmanship means that deals usually happen at the last moment but increasingly, economic pressures are driving the political decisions that will determine whether Sudan and South Sudan return to war.

Horn of Africa project >>