JUBA, South Sudan – Once again, relations between Sudan and South Sudan are teetering on the brink of war. Over the past week, fighting along the border between the two nations, and aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, deep into the territory of South Sudan have nearly destroyed rising hopes that the two countries would strike a deal in the near future on outstanding disputes. However, some hope still lives on in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where officials cling to the possibility that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will proceed with his visit to Juba on April 3 for a tête-à-tête with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir.
Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s chief negotiator in talks with Sudan over outstanding post-independence issues, traveled to Khartoum on March 23 and personally delivered a letter of invitation to the President al-Bashir. Upon his return to Juba the next day, Amum called a press conference to inform the media that Bashir accepted the invitation to meet his counterpart in South Sudan. The two presidents were slated to sign the so-called “Four Freedoms” agreement reached between the countries in Addis Ababa a few weeks earlier concerning citizenship and border issues. Importantly, the high-level bilateral meeting was set to seal the deal on the way forward in building relations between the two countries, based on mutual viability and responsibility to preserve territorial integrity. The presidential summit was also to address issues such as Juba’s potential mediation role in negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the alleged support of the Khartoum regime to the South Sudanese rebel groups.
Significantly, the meeting was expected to initiate the end of South Sudan’s oil production shutdown and establish an agreement on pipeline fees that have plagued relations between the two countries. Since the government of South Sudan halted oil production in January, both countries’ economies have been negatively affected.
Any optimism over the success in Addis Ababa and anticipation of Bashir’s visit were overshadowed this week on March 26 by a clash between the two countries’ armies in the disputed oil-rich area of Heglig, as both sides traded accusations about who instigated the violence. Subsequently, the SAF bombed targets, including oil installations, near Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity state, deep within South Sudan. It remains unclear, however, whether the attacks in Unity state were intended by Khartoum as a strategic move ahead of negotiations or as an act meant to end the possibility of agreement.
Fighting over the past two days, March 28 and 29, along the poorly demarcated border was the fiercest since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011. Subsequently, the South Sudan Liberation Army, or SSLA, a rebel group based in Unity state with alleged connections to the Khartoum regime, launched attacks in Pariyang County. In a press statement published on March 27, SSLA claimed a successful campaign in Pariyang that dislodged thousands of SPLA soldiers from military barracks and destroyed some of its trucks. Moreover, the SSLA announced further attacks throughout Unity and Upper Nile, calling on international agencies to evacuate from those areas.
South Sudan’s Minister of Information Barnaba Mariel Benjamin addressed the deteriorating relations at a press conference in Juba on March 27. He recalled the positive working relations between the two teams during the last round of negotiations in Addis Ababa and the atmosphere of goodwill that President Bashir’s upcoming visit to Juba would cement. He stressed his hope that the summit on April 3 would take place as planned, despite the ongoing fighting along the border. Benjamin warned, however, that “hawks” within the ruling regime in Khartoum were not happy with the progress Khartoum and Juba have made during talks in recent weeks.
The SAF pronouncing that violence near the Heglig oilfield abrogates the Khartoum government’s responsibility to honor the Addis Ababa agreements lends some credence to Benjamin’s speculations. It has been a subject of debate since even before South Sudan’s independence whether hardliners within the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, backed by military generals, have taken over state affairs in Sudan. From the outset of the Addis Ababa talks, some members of the ruling regime in Khartoum were reportedly opposed to the agreements, and it is significant that the statement on the “Four Freedoms” agreement revocation came not from the government of Sudan but from the military spokesperson. Benjamin’s statement that the government of South Sudan is still hopeful that Bashir would come to Juba is perhaps based on Bashir’s past success in winning over hardline block within his regime.
Malik Agar, the current chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of four opposition rebel groups in Sudan, is convinced that the facade of internal divisions within the NCP is crafted to deceive the public, particularly the international community. Malik Agar told the Enough Project that it is, without a doubt, Bashir who is in charge.
Amid increased tensions with South Sudan, Omar al-Bashir ordered full mobilization of the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces, or PDF, and issued a decree for the establishment of a committee to facilitate mobilization of jihadists. The committee’s membership is made up of top state officials including first Vice-President Ali Osman Taha as chairman. The committee’s key task is to make arrangements for the mobilization campaign and preparations for jihadists camps. The decree was issued on the same day as SAF clashed with SPLA in the area of Heglig. Governor of Khartoum Abdel Rahman al-Khidir announced that four brigades of the paramilitary PDF have assembled to support the country’s army in repelling attacks by neighboring South Sudan. Sudan appears to be bracing for turbulent times ahead.
Bashir’s no-show in Juba on April 3 would waste a prime opportunity to make significant progress in resolving the conflict. It is critical at this point that both sides exercise maximum restraint and quickly revive the will to work together to finalize the agreements from Addis Ababa, as the first necessary step toward lasting peace and co-existence.
Photo: South Sudan Soldiers (Enough Project / Tim Freccia)