The UNSC and the AU Move to Settle the Sudans’ Conflict

After months of basically fruitless negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan following the latter’s independence from the former last July, the countries have recently been flirting with a return to war. South Sudan’s seizure of the Heglig oil field from Sudan (now under Sudanese control once more, production at Heglig has apparently resumed) and Sudan’s bombing campaigns inside South Sudanese territory have caused worldwide concern. This week, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the African Union (AU), working in tandem, moved to settle the conflict, the UN by means of threats and the AU with a plan for peace.

Bloomberg on the UNSC:

The United Nations Security Council warned Sudan and South Sudan to halt fighting and settle their differences on splitting revenue from South Sudan’s oil reserves within three months or face possible sanctions.

The 15-member council unanimously passed a resolution today calling for withdrawal of all forces from disputed territories, an end to air raids by the north and a negotiated solution to the issue of payments by South Sudan for shipping oil to Port Sudan in the north.

The resolution reinforces a peace plan outlined by the African Union and comes two weeks after troops from the South withdrew from the disputed oil-producing Heglig region. Support for the resolution came from China, a major buyer of Sudan’s oil, and Russia, which both generally oppose sanctions.

That the UNSC’s resolution applies to South Sudan as well as to Sudan symbolizes for me how much international sympathy South Sudan has lost during the present conflict, although when South Sudan occupied Heglig, the international community’s reaction was complex.

Read the text of the UNSC resolution here.

VOA on the AU:

The African Union says Sudan has accepted an AU roadmap for halting violence and resolving issues with neighboring South Sudan.
[...]
The roadmap gives the two countries 90 days to settle their issues or face binding international arbitration. The AU said South Sudan accepted the plan earlier this week.

Now we will see how threats and plans from the outside affect the reality on the ground. That the UNSC and the AU are working together improves the odds of peace, it seems to me, as does the fact that the AU has been able to get buy-in, at least in speech, from both sides.

Sudan and South Sudan Battle for Heglig Oil Field

Heglig (map) is a town near oilfields of the same name. It lies within Sudan, in the state of Southern Kordofan, near the border with South Sudan, though some dispute (north) Sudan’s claim to the area and say instead that the area belongs to South Sudan. In recent weeks, the armies of Sudan and South Sudan have clashed while the two countries’ leaders conduct tense and so far largely fruitless negotiations regarding oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and other issues left unsettled after South Sudan gained its independence last July. Some of the fighting has centered on Heglig, whose importance lies largely in the fact that it is one of the few major fields left inside Sudanese territory – some 75% of Sudanese oil production capacity was, and is, in the South. Heglig “is key to the Sudanese economy because it contributes almost half of the country’s output of 115,000 bpd.”

Heglig was a site of fighting during earlier Sudan-South Sudan conflicts, including during post-independence skirmishes over the past nine months. The current round of fighting began around March 26, with Sudan saying on the 27th that “it had expelled southern army units from the area around the Heglig field.” Then, some ten days ago, Sudan claimed to have defeated another South Sudanese push into Heglig. Yesterday, after renewed fighting, Sudan acknowledged that Southern forces had taken Heglig. What James Copnall of the BBC says is worth quoting at length:

The fact that Sudan’s biggest oilfield is now apparently in the hands of the South Sudanese army is astonishing.

It is legitimate to wonder why Sudan’s military – which has the advantage of air power and greater weaponry – wasn’t able to stop the South Sudanese advance.

Perhaps the Sudan Armed Forces are simply over-stretched: as well as the South Sudanese army, they are fighting rebel groups in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum alleges the rebels are supported by South Sudan.

Sudan will certainly respond…However it is possible the South Sudanese will slip away from the oilfields, with their point proven.

These clashes almost certainly represent an attempt to win ground before negotiations resume.

The government in Khartoum is promising a response, and apparently fighting continues in the area. Meanwhile, South Sudan says it successfully defended the border town of Teshwin against Sudanese attacks earlier this week. The South Sudanese are hitting Sudan where it hurts, and are probably causing a lot of consternation in Khartoum.

Stepping back, I think we have to call this a form of warfare. So far it does not seem to be the “return to full-blown (civil) war” that many, including myself, have feared since before Southern independence. The violence, most analysts stress, forms part of the negotiations process – politics by other means, as it were. For the present, the challenge for observers is making sense of all the interlocking conflicts in the two countries, especially Sudan: internal rebellions, rebellions backed by outsiders, and direct clashes between national armies. The governments, meanwhile, are playing a dangerous game. This is some of the worst fighting since independence, and violence, even as a negotiating tactic, can take on a momentum of its own. Finally, civilians find themselves caught in the middle of a deadly political struggle, often with nowhere to flee.

Sudan-South Sudan: Fighting and Talking

When South Sudan attained independence last July, core final status issues – namely oil revenue sharing formulas and border demarcation – remained unresolved between it and Sudan. Since that time, multiple rounds of talks have yielded more frustration than progress. Violence has occurred multiple times in the border areas, whether from the Sudanese government cracking down on alleged internal rebels or in the form of skirmishes between Sudan and South Sudan.

On Monday, violence, the worst yet, flared up again between Sudan and South Sudan. Fighting focused on the area around Heglig, an oil field that lies within Sudan’s borders.

Sudanese warplanes launched air raids on newly independent South Sudan, as the rival armies clashed in heavy battles.
Both sides accuse the other of starting the fighting, the worst violence since South Sudan declared independence from Khartoum last July after decades of civil war.

The fighting has now ended, but perhaps not for long. The two sides are holding talks today in neighboring Ethiopia.

Mohamed Vall, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. said that talks would not be occurring at “a high ministerial level”.

He further reported that it was commonplace for fighting to break out before rounds of negotiations, as “whenever there is negotiation, and many things at stake, the two sides try to find a kind of bargain chip on the ground, something that shows that they are in control, that they are stronger on the ground”.

Using violence as a negotiating tactic is not new. But it is dangerous. Violence can escalate beyond what tactical planners anticipated. And it is costly, in lives, money, and time. Finally, in this case, it does not appear to be working – violence does not seem to have brought a settlement closer.

The two sides say they do not want war, which is of course good, but they also need resolution. I’ve seen several pieces lately with titles like “South Sudan’s Dreams Already Slipping Away.” While I would say that South Sudan was always confronting terrible problems of poverty, political inclusion, corruption, internal violence, etc., it is also true that the events of the last nine months, particularly since South Sudan suspended oil production in January, have taken their toll. Sudan does not seem to be in great shape either, economically or politically. The current rhythm of fight, talk, fight, talk is unsustainable.