After weeks of escalating border violence and heated rhetoric, war has returned to the Sudans. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) formally ended 40 years of civil war between north and south Sudan, and paved the way for the creation of the Republic of South Sudan, Africa’s newest independent state. But the CPA was comprehensive in name only: It left details of border demarcation, economic cooperation and political reform unspecified and without mechanisms for enforcement. During the six years of shared government between north and south mandated by the CPA, little progress was made toward settling these issues; instead of encouraging cooperation, the arrangement functioned further to bifurcate political power in the hands of the agreement’s official partners, the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south. The SPLM came to dominate a sovereign government following southerners’ vote to secede from the Khartoum-centered state in January 2011. Post-secession negotiations hosted in Addis Ababa have only inched along while both governments — as well as their various allied militias — have tried to use force to alter the facts on the ground.

Clashes along the border have increased steadily since the secession vote, though the tensions rose particularly sharply when South Sudan shut down its oil industry in January. This decision followed a bitter disagreement over the fees for transporting southern oil to market at Port Sudan in the north. The conflict came to a head on April 10 when the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) took control of the northern town of Heglig and its surrounding oil fields, which supply roughly half of the north’s oil output. After ten days of fighting and international condemnation, the SPLA withdrew and called for arbitration to settle the outstanding border dispute. The death toll has not been confirmed — both forces claim to have killed hundreds and sustained losses in the dozens — but reports and photographs from Heglig show unrecovered bodies of both Sudanese army and SPLA forces strewn along the roads and damaged oilfields. [1] In addition to scores of deaths, thousands have been displaced along the shared borders, especially in South Kordofan.

Since the SPLA’s withdrawal from Heglig, the African Union has proposed a three-month road map for resolving the quarrels over borders, oil and citizenship for the more than 300,000 southerners living in the north whom Khartoum has threatened to deport before the end of May. The plan requires an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops from contested areas and the creation of a joint border monitoring group, an end to the two states’ support of rebel groups, the “cessation of hostile propaganda and inflammatory statements in the media” and a commitment to protect resident citizens of the other country. The United States has thrown its weight behind the AU plan and successfully lobbied the UN Security Council to endorse it as of May 2. Even Russia and China — usually allies of Khartoum — supported the plan, objecting only to the threat of additional sanctions to enforce the timeline. (Their protestations were unsuccessful in taking sanctions off the table.) Yet even with the added stick of sanctions and the ceasefire element, the AU plan simply revives the essence of the Addis Ababa meetings that had been in progress for several months until the confrontation in Heglig derailed talks.

Like the previous incarnation, these talks are unlikely to bring about a durable peace. The problem lies not in the details of the agreements, but with the framework of negotiations. Since secession, international attention has shifted to brokering inter-state deals on economic issues rather than intra-state problems of democracy and pluralism. Both regimes are politically fragile: Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party is not a unitary political force, and faces opposition from hardline Islamists, more moderate secular parties and members of the northern branch of the SPLM. Over the months of April and May, a number of prominent dissidents from this opposition have been detained and imprisoned in Khartoum. For its part, the SPLM in South Sudan is rife with intra-party rivalries and has had its stranglehold on power challenged by nascent opposition groups as the country begins the process of writing its constitution. Violence along the borders should be understood not only as a result of greed over oil rents, but also as a concerted strategy for consolidating the power of the ruling parties. The simultaneous talk of belligerent resolve and openness to resumed negotiations suggests a recognition that neither regime can survive for long without resolving key cross-border issues.

Militarization, Not Participation

The military confrontation in Heglig followed over a year of proxy battles and small-scale raids all along the disputed border. According to the CPA, three areas along the boundary — Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile — were supposed to vote in “popular consultations” organized by the joint NCP-SPLM government and conducted alongside the southern referendum to decide whether to join a separate southern state. None of these votes occurred. Khartoum has postponed indefinitely the referendums in South Kordofan and Blue Nile because of ongoing conflicts with armed rebel movements. The question of Abyei, one of the sticking points of the peace process since 2002, remains open. Khartoum has deferred resolution of the question of who is eligible to vote on the matter: Sudan wants Misseriya herders who live in Abyei part of the year (and are more closely aligned with the northern state) to have a say, while South Sudan insists that only permanent residents (mostly Dinka, who have familial and political ties to the south) should qualify.

At stake is 4,000 square miles of fertile and water-rich land, as well as the remaining oil underneath it. Though oil production has declined sharply since 2006, the loss of 70 percent of its oil reserves after secession means that smaller-scale operations in the north represent a larger share of Sudan’s total output. The potential blow to Khartoum of Abyei’s departure was softened somewhat in July 2009 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague defined Abyei’s boundaries such that several oil fields — including Heglig — lay outside the territory. [2] At the time, both the NCP and SPLM representatives accepted the decision. Yet as the deadline for the referendum came and went, both Sudanese army and SPLA troops took up posts in the area. Clashes between Misseriya militias and local police and attacks on villages north of Abyei town in February and March 2011 killed over 150 people. [3] That May, Sudanese military attacks on Abyei town displaced 110,000, most of whom went to stay with family or in refugee camps in the soon-to-be-independent South Sudan. Abyei town has since been repopulated with Misseriya herders and the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), a spinoff of the decommissioned UN Mission in Sudan, which established a base in June to protect civilians and try to broker peace. Its civilian employees, however, have been prevented from taking up their posts because Khartoum refuses to grant visas.

Shortly after the invasion of Abyei, Khartoum expanded its battle against insurgents in South Kordofan and Blue Nile through indiscriminate attacks on civilians and targeted violence against members of dissident groups. The Nuba Mountains, some 250 miles north of Abyei town, have been bombarded nearly every day for almost a year. The death toll has remained relatively low, as many people have taken refuge in mountain caves. Yet the untended fields and the near complete embargo on international food and medical aid threaten to cause a famine. Around 100,000 people have fled to refugee camps in South Sudan. Blue Nile has also been subject to a bombing campaign since September. An April briefing from Human Rights Watch cites witnesses to looting, mass arrests and arbitrary executions. The Sudanese government has charged over 130 people with crimes against the state (observers estimate there are many more being held without charge) but refuses to release their names or any evidence to lawyers. [4] Human Rights Watch estimates that the conflict has forced 200,000 people from their homes, half of whom have crossed the border into South Sudan or Ethiopia.

Nuba militias have fought the central government on and off for decades, on their own and in alliance with the SPLA during the second civil war (1985-2005). Members of the SPLA from South Kordofan and Blue Nile are still active as the armed wing of SPLM-North, led by the former governor of Blue Nile, Malik Agar, who was ousted in September 2011 when the NCP appointed a military governor. In November 2011, the SPLM-North joined three rebel groups in Darfur — the Justice and Equality Movement and two factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement — to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front, also under Agar’s leadership. The coalition’s stated goal is the abolition of the ruling junta by both military and political means. Khartoum has accused the southern government of providing supplies and shelter to the rebel groups, which the SPLM has denied. Yet Justice and Equality Movement militiamen were seen patrolling Heglig alongside the SPLA in April and the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss think tank that monitors armed conflict and weapons trafficking, claims that both governments have supported cross-border rebel groups.

Sudan has also conducted airstrikes in South Sudan and Abyei since November, when two bombs fell near the Yida refugee camp in Unity state, where many Nuba have fled. Two towns in Upper Nile state were attacked the first week of March 2012. In early April, airstrikes ordered by Khartoum hit Um Khureit in Abyei and a bridge between Unity and Warrap states, killing five people and injuring several more. Sudanese planes also bombed Abiemnom, Mayom and Bentiu, killing at least 18 people. Since the SPLA’s withdrawal from Heglig on April 20, bombings have continued to hit towns in Unity state. Sudanese military officials denied involvement in these attacks.

“Sudanese Spring”

The SPLM has made multiple claims about its capture of Heglig. The first was that Heglig was the operating base for Sudanese army attacks on the south. A second justification was the relatively new claim that Heglig is part of Unity state. Though the 2009 ruling on Abyei’s borders was accepted by both parties, Juba now interprets the court’s decision narrowly: Heglig is outside of Abyei but south of the 1956 border that formed the basis of the CPA negotiations. (The maps included with the court’s ruling do show Heglig and the surrounding area as part of South Kordofan, but the court did not technically rule on the city’s status except in relation to Abyei’s boundaries.) Government officials and much of the southern media often refer to the area by its Dinka name, Panthou. Juba has also used the incident to refocus attention on the continuing occupation of Abyei by the Sudanese military. But despite South Sudan’s long-standing claim to Abyei, the security of the region and its inhabitants has been sacrificed before for larger SPLM goals. Pre-referendum violence between Misseriya militias and local police, for example, was kept quiet by SPLM leaders in order to ensure the January 2011 vote was not canceled. [5]

Similarly, the SPLM’s decision to shut down oil production in January has disproportionately affected southerners. The embargo certainly hampers Sudan’s economy, but the greater blow falls on the south, where oil revenues provide 98 percent of the government’s budget (the other 2 percent comes from international aid). In February, South Sudan announced it would export 35,000 barrels per day — one tenth of normal daily output — by truck to ports in Kenya and Djibouti while pipelines are designed and constructed. No such shipments have occurred to date and agreement over eastbound pipelines will not be secured until the summer of 2012. In the meantime, the state is importing fuel to meet domestic needs and the cabinet has voted to garnish minister salaries and impose austerity measures to help finance the war. According to documents obtained by the Sudan Tribune, World Bank officials warn that, even with drastic cuts to state spending, the south’s economy will likely collapse by the end of 2013. [6]

Though oil plays an important role in the antagonism between the two states, the crisis of government on both sides of the border is one of politics, not of resources — oil is a means rather than an end. The use of oil as a bargaining chip, however, has forced both governments into corners in the larger negotiation process. The loss of oil revenue for both states has stressed already weak economies and emboldened opposition groups. Both the NCP and the SPLM have tried to shore up political support by reframing these economic woes as patriotic resolve rather than a failure of diplomacy. (Bashir has gone so far as to make the untenable — and disingenuous — claim in April that Sudan would never again transport southern oil.) War talk has boosted domestic support even more — appeals to territorial integrity have played well among both northerners and southerners following two decades of civil war. In the south, the most prominent opposition parties withdrew from the constitutional drafting committee in March, citing procedural violations by the SPLM members. These groups vocally supported the SPLA’s incursion into Heglig as either a necessary defensive measure, or as a justified claim on South Sudanese territory. In the north, the NCP slammed centrist critics who support negotiations by touting pro-government street demonstrations following the recapture of Heglig as a “Sudanese spring.”

Misunderstanding the CPA’s Legacy

While the acceptance by both governments of the UN Security Council resolution in early May might go some way toward reducing border violence, the negotiations to which north and south must return do little to address the root causes of the conflict. It is now commonplace for diplomats and analysts to cite the ongoing violence as a failure of the CPA to achieve negotiated settlements on borders, revenues and citizenship. The more serious flaw of the CPA, however, was to trade political emancipation of the southern states for systemic reform of Sudan’s political institutions. The junta of which Bashir is head relies on exploiting inter-communal tensions and mobilizing official and paramilitary violence to maintain its grip on power. South Sudan’s fledgling national identity is based primarily on geography and a history of systematic oppression; internal politics still fragment mainly along ethnic lines and according to frequently shifting relationships among regional power brokers. The SPLM-dominated government does not control the means of violence and continues to be challenged by armed groups in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states. These political problems are largely outside the framework of the AU negotiations, except insofar as Khartoum is urged to move forward with the “popular consultations” in South Kordofan and Blue Nile and to allow the SPLM-North to operate as a political party.

Less sophisticated observers assign the bulk of the blame to the racism and genocidal intent of the northern government. Bashir’s racist rhetoric should not be ignored. Neither should it be taken as the sole explanatory framework for what is happening along the border. The social hierarchy in Sudan has long been dominated by the Nile Valley merchant elite, and relations among competing interests from other regions are often refracted through ideas of racial difference and inferiority (a system that was strengthened and institutionalized by the racialist social policies of British colonialism), as well as through violence. But to focus on this aspect of the conflict is to miss the much larger picture. The south’s secession and subsequent oil embargo, the ongoing uprisings in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the student protests in Khartoum, demonstrations against the Nile damming project in the far north, as well as the conservative Islamist political challenge — these tremors are rattling the foundation of the NCP’s power. In the face of such threats, jingoism returns easy political rewards. (Nor does the north have a monopoly on this dirty game: SPLM figures have blamed northern merchants in the south for the rise in oil prices and expelled northern oil workers from the country, and jallaba, the term for Arabs involved in kidnapping and trafficking southerners for the slave trade, is a common epithet in the south.) [7]

Some activists see this weakness as an opening for military engagement, either by South Sudan or a US-led coalition. But war only increases Bashir’s hold on power and facilitates the regime’s crackdown on internal dissent, in addition to endangering millions of civilian lives. The failure to see an alternative path between continued war and negotiations that do not require Bashir or southern president Salva Kiir to pluralize and decentralize government, end the arrest and intimidation of journalists and dissidents, and meaningfully enfranchise marginalized groups ensures that any action is likely to provide only a temporary peace.


[1] Agence France Presse, April 23, 2012.
[2] A comparative map is available at
[3] Small Arms Survey, “The Crisis in Abyei,” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (Geneva, October 2011).
[4] Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: Blue Nile Civilians Describe Attacks, Abuses” (Juba, April 2012).
[5] Small Arms Survey, op cit.
[6] The documents are available at,42534.
[7] Reuters, April 24, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Amanda Ufheil-Somers "War Returns to the Two Sudans," Middle East Report Online, May 09, 2012.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This