Analysis | Ramzy Baroud: The hands behind Sudan’s Oil War

Author and columnist Ramzy Baroud provides an exclusive, eye-opening account of the latest developments, and rising tensions, in Sudan.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, May 19, 2012 0:00 - 2 Comments

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A Sudanese worker inspects the damage to an oil-processing facility in Heglig last month. South Sudan seized Sudan’s main oil field in the town in April, sparking intense fighting. Under strong international pressure, South Sudan withdrew. (Ashraf Shazly, AFP/Getty Images / April 23, 2012)

Once again Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir waved his walking stick in the air. Once again he spoke of splendid victories over his enemies as thousands of jubilant supporters danced and cheered. But this time around the stakes are too high.

An all-out war against newly independent South Sudan might not be in Sudan’s best interest. South Sudan’s saber-rattling is not an entirely independent initiative; its most recent territorial transgressions – which saw the occupation of Sudan’s largest oil field in Heglig on April 10, followed by a hasty retreat ten days later – might have been a calculated move aimed at drawing Sudan into a larger conflict.

Stunted by the capture of Heglig, which, according to some estimates, provides nearly half of the country’s oil production, Bashir promised victory over Juba. Speaking to large crowd in the capital of North Kordofan, El-Obeid, Bashir affectively declared war. “Heglig isn’t the end, it is the beginning,” he said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Bashir also declared a desire to ‘liberate’ the people of South Sudan from a government composed of ‘insects.’ Even when Heglig was declared a liberated region by Sudan’s defence minister, the humiliation of defeat was simply replaced by the fervor of victory. “They started the fighting and we will announce when it will end, and our advance will never stop,” Bashir announced on April 20.

Statements issued by the government of South Sudan are clearly more measured, with an international target audience in mind. Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, simply said that his forces departed the region following appeals made by the international community. This includes a statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which described the attack on Heglig as “an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal act” (Reuters, April 19). A day before the hasty withdrawal, South Sudan government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin claimed there had been no conflict in the first place. His statement was both bewildering and patronizing. He considered Sudan, which was then rallying for war to recapture its oil-rich area, a neighbor and “friendly nation”, and claimed that “up to now we have not crossed even an inch into Sudan” (Associated Press, April 19).

The fact remains, however, that wherever there is oil, political narratives cannot possibly be so simple. Sudan is caught in a multidimensional conflict involving weapons trade, internal instabilities, multiple civil wars and the reality of outside players with their own interests. None of this is enough to excuse the readiness for war on behalf of Khartoum and Juba, but it certainly presents serious obstacles to any attempt aimed at rectifying the situation.

Stirring Conflict

In a statement published last July, Amnesty International called on UN member states to control arm shipments to both Sudan and South Sudan. It accused the US, Russia and China of fueling violations in the Sudan conflict through the arms trade. While China was reportedly supplying the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) with conventional weapons, Russia provided Antonov aircraft and Sukhoi SU-25 fighters.

US support of South Sudan is already well-known. “The US reportedly provided $100 million-a-year in military assistance to the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army),” reported Russia Today on April 19, citing a December 2009 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks.”

The same cable was used by Amnesty to argue against arming both sides of a potentially volatile conflict.

A day after Amnesty’s call was issued, South Sudan became a sovereign nation, and soon after it became a member of the United Nations and the Africa Union. A hyped sense of achievement was celebrated by the countries that supported the SPLA in Sudan’s long and bloody civil war between 1983 and 2005, which cost an estimated 2.5 million lives. Both Sudanese governments had then promised a new dawn of political freedom and economic prosperity.

Neither the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement nor the January 9-15, 2011 referendum managed to actually redeem the many disputes between both countries. In fact, even before South Sudan gained its independence in July, a conflict in South Kordofan broke out between the Sudanese army and the SPLA. Both sides reportedly committed crimes against civilians.

Various international institutions and media continue to warn of possible starvation in the tumultuous region.

Deadly Embrace

With a single act of aggression, a whole set of conflicts are prone to flaring up. It is the nature of proxy politics, as many armed groups seek opportunities for territorial advances and financial gains. News reports already speak of a possible involvement of Uganda should the fledging war between Khartoum and Juba cross conventional boundaries. “As the possibility of a full-fledged war became unnervingly higher, General Aronda Nyakairima, chief of Uganda’s defense forces, said that his army might be compelled to intervene if Bashir did overthrow South Sudan’s regime,” reported Alexis Okeowo in the New Yorker website (April 20).

Both Sudans are fighting their own war against various rebel groups. Despite the lack of basic food in parts of the region, plenty of weapons effortlessly find inroads to wherever there is potential strife.

According to political author and columnist Reason Wafawarova, US interest in South Sudan is neither accidental nor motivated by humanitarian issues. He told Russia Today, “It would not be surprising if the US is trying to capitalize on the vulnerability of South Sudan in its efforts to establish the AFRICOM base somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.” RT goes on to reference Sudan’s Al-Intibaha newspaper for its reports on Israeli weapon supplies to Juba.

US and Israeli military support of Juba is not a new phenomenon. Sudan’s civil war (1983-2005) could not have lasted as long as it did without steady sources of military funding. And while the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the January 9-15, 2011 referendum, and finally the independence of South Sudan in July were all meant to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation, none actualized. Sudan’s territorial concessions proved most costly, and South Sudan, destroyed and landlocked, was ripe for outside exploitation.

Both countries are now caught in a deadly embrace. They can neither part ways completely, nor cooperate successfully without a risk of war at every turn. Bashir also knows he is running out of options. While Khartoum has already “lost three-quarters of its oil revenue after the secession,” according Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, “now it is poised to lose the rest.”

Way Out?

The crisis in the Sudans cannot be resolved by empty gestures and reassuring statements. The conflict in that region has been festering for decades, and war has been the only common language. Powerful countries, including the US, Russia, China, but also regional Arab and Africa players, have often exploited the conflict to their advantage. In a recent analysis, the International Crisis Group in Brussels advised that a “new strategy is needed to avert an even bigger crisis.”

The bigger crisis lies in the fact that Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is facing political instability at home, preventing any real commitment previous agreements. The crisis group recommends that the “UN Security Council must reassert itself to preserve international peace and security, including the implementation of border monitoring tasks as outlined by UN Interim Security Force in Abyei.”

Expecting the Security Council to act in political tandem seems a bit too optimistic. Considering that the US is arming and supporting South Sudan, and that Russia and China continue to support Khartoum, the rivalry in fact exists within the UN itself.

While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s did condemn the south’s seizure of the oil field, much more is needed. For a sustainable future peace arrangement, Sudan’s territorial integrity must be respected, and South Sudan must not be pushed to the brink of desperation. Rivalries between the US, China and Russia cannot continue at the expense of nations that teeter between starvation and civil wars. And whatever hidden hands continue to exploit Sudan’s woes now need to be exposed and isolated.

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Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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Ivan
May 16, 2012 14:46

Great piece. The role of the US is often left out of mainstream narratives of the conflict in Sudan, which often just portray Africans as fighting simply because they are African. Its also interesting to see the old Cold War politics of Russia/China attempting to counter-balance US hegemony. It is a shame that it is mainly Africans who will suffer in this battle for international power.

Today’s News Links: 05-23-12 | Material Truth
May 24, 2012 3:50

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