How do we characterize the situation in (north) Sudan and South Sudan now? Since before the July 2011 referendum that gave South Sudan independence, since before the April 2010 presidential elections that were part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the north and the south, since perhaps the signing of the CPA itself, there have been fears that the two areas (now two nations) would return to war – would pick up the civil wars of 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 where they left off.
Are those fears now coming true? For several years, accusations have been flying that the government in Khartoum is arming and inciting rebellions in the South. For several months, conflict has raged along the new border, with the armies of Sudan and South Sudan increasingly coming into direct, armed confrontations with one another. For several weeks, South Sudanese forces have made incursions into Sudanese territory as part of a cycle of retaliatory violence propagated by both sides. And on Wednesday, President Omar al Bashir of Sudan seemed to declare war on the South – though the Southern government says the two countries are not at war. Some state of warfare clearly exists; the question is one of terminology, perhaps, but more importantly one of where all this is headed.
There are factors that mitigate against full-blown war. The escalation currently taking place is increasingly concerning to outsiders, and not just in East Africa. The United Nations Security Council is reportedly considering imposing sanctions on both parties. The UN has also denounced South Sudan’s occupation of the area around the Heglig oil field, inside Sudanese territory. The United States is keenly interested in preventing a return to full-blown war. And China, where Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir is set to travel soon, also has an interest in seeing that the conflict does not escalate further. What results such concern will produce is not yet clear, though this morning saw the announcement that Southern forces will withdraw from Heglig. It should be noted, finally, that not all outside parties are necessarily emphasizing peace – the Ugandan government has proclaimed that it would support South Sudan if it comes to war. Such rhetoric could increase, not reduce, tensions.
There are other factors that might encourage escalation. One such factor is how the conflict plays out within the internal politics of each country. For example, an article from the Sudan Tribune reports on how the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has “slammed two opposition parties for not condemning strongly enough the capture of Heglig by the South Sudanese army last week.” The governments in Khartoum and Juba both face serious internal problems, including rebellions, and it is possible that some hardliners, especially in Khartoum, see a political opportunity in the present conflict – namely, the chance to promote or enforce internal political cohesion in the name of national security and patriotism.
Yet escalating the conflict also carries major political risks for each side, especially given the economic difficulties both face, difficulties that stem partly from the conflict itself. A costly and protracted struggle could exacerbate internal dissent in both countries, in addition to consuming lives, time, and resources on the battlefield.