As of yesterday, fighting had broken out again between Sudan and South Sudan, which have been at odds since (and before) the South became independent last July. As I wrote last week, there are factors at work in the conflict that could reduce the chances of escalation (such as international concern over the situation) as well as factors that could promote escalation. One such factor is the internal politics of each Sudan. This post focuses on the northern side of the border.
Powerful voices in Khartoum are taking a hard line on the conflict, while the increasingly precarious position of Southern Sudanese who reside in the north introduces yet another note of tension into North-South relations.
Strong rhetoric has come from President Omar al Bashir, who gave a major speech last week in which he threatened to teach South Sudan a “final lesson by force.” It has come from Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who now expresses pessimism about negotiations and “added that he doesn’t think peace will be achieved with Juba’s current leaders.” Heated language has come from Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), whose spokesman Dr. Badr al Din Ahmad Ibrahim (Arabic) recently likened the government of South Sudan to the “Israel of Africa,” phrasing that suggests a good deal of enmity.
Several major northern parties, in what could be read either as a standard expression of patriotism or as something stronger, have congratulated the Sudan Armed Forces on the recovery of Heglig oil field, which Southern forces briefly controlled last week. Sadiq al Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party and former prime minister, framed the “liberation” of the Heglig oil field (Arabic) as a lesson in “accountability” for the South and as a wake-up call for the north.
A climate of tension between North and South is exacerbated by the problems of Southerners who reside in the north. On April 9, Southerners lost their legal right to reside in the north, producing sustained confusion about how they can resolve their legal status and touching off humanitarian issues among Southerners now working to return to the South. Meanwhile, yesterday’s burning of “a Catholic church frequented by Southern Sudanese” in Khartoum seemed to mark a new level of hostility toward Southern residents in the north (more on the burning, in Arabic, here). I do not want to overstate the importance of one incident, but I would think that news of the burning, following so quickly on the heels of the changes of April 9, is causing some anger in Juba.
None of this means that war is guaranteed or that de-escalation is impossible. But it will be worth keeping an eye on how the conflict affects, and plays out within, the internal political scenes of both North and South. As The Economist writes, “Sudanese brinkmanship knows few boundaries. This makes tank battles more likely but not inevitable.” Tough rhetoric and actions on both sides (this post focuses on the North, but certainly the South’s move into Heglig represents a new level of aggression on their part) feed into such brinkmanship.