Does War Serve Political Interests in Sudan and South Sudan?

When the situation along the Sudan-South Sudan border started to rapidly deteriorate a few weeks ago, I started to wonder what factors could be causing the Sudans to push each other closer and closer to conflict. So, I decided to explore a line of logic focusing on whether war, or at least low-intensity conflict, served political interests for the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan and the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in South Sudan. (I should caveat this by saying that what follows is based on observation and speculation rather than hard evidence, so this is really just food for thought.)

In both countries, conflict could provide a distraction from the current financial situation.

  • In contrast to the oil boom years following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Sudan has had to introduce economic austerity measures due to the loss of most of its oil revenue from fields in the South. Prior to South Sudan’s independence, oil comprised 60% of the government’s revenues and 95% of export revenues. The country’s economic prospects deteriorated even further as a result of the shutdown of oil production in South Sudan as a result of disagreements over oil transit. With the loss of oil revenue, the NCP’s ability to coerce opponents and use patronage to co-opt potential rivals has been significantly reduced.
  • Like Sudan, South Sudan recently introduced an austerity budget to cope with the loss of oil revenue, which comprised 98% of total government revenues and 99% of export revenues. After the CPA was signed in 2005, there was an expectation among South Sudanese that with peace, and the CPA’s Protocol on Wealth Sharing, the SPLM would be able to deliver them a “peace dividend.” However, given the challenges inherent in establishing a new government, even by independence, the SPLM was still struggling to keep pace with the population’s rising expectations. The dispute over oil transit fees and Sudan’s bombing of areas along the border allows the SPLM to deflect blame for the population’s continued hardship on Sudan’s intransigence.

In both countries, conflict has the potential to consolidate political support and quell dissent.

  • Since losing the South and the revenue from its oilfields, President Omar al-Bashir has been extremely vulnerable. Arguably, Bashir has chosen war to rally the population behind him in similar situations (i.e., in Darfur to divert attention from the concessions the NCP had to make to the South during the CPA negotiations, and in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state in the lead up to South Sudan’s independence). Bashir has even used the term “jihad” to consolidate Northern Muslim support against Southern non-Muslim aggressors. A conflict might also allow Bashir to minimize the emergence of a student uprising, for example, that could topple his regime. Such uprisings were responsible for the fall of the Ibrahim Aboud and Jaafar Nimeiri regimes in 1964 and 1985, respectively.
  • Although several issues (political, tribal, regional, etc) divided South Sudan during the civil war, what brought the population together was its collective opposition to the north. However, as independence grew closer, the SPLM faced allegations of exclusionary politics, nepotism, and corruption, in addition to dissatisfaction with the SPLM’s commitment to improving state and local government. Thus, for South Sudan, conflict with Sudan affords SPLM the opportunity to rally the population around the government by reasserting Sudan as an existential threat in order to transcend internal divisions.

In both countries, conflict has the potential to consolidate military support – or at least distract the armed forces.

  • Without oil revenue to grease Sudan’s patronage machine, Bashir cannot guarantee the loyalty of the military. Having come to power by coup, Bashir might fear a coup launched by disgruntled mid-level officers, and seeks conflict with South Sudan as a diversion. Aided by South Sudan’s invasion of Heglig earlier this month, Bashir has been able to cast South Sudan as aggressors and turn the military’s attention outwards, away from him, in spite of 700 officers warning him to avoid war back in January.
  • For the past six years, the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has been simultaneously undergoing Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) and integrating former militia members who have accepted the government’s offers of amnesty. Ideally, DDR would reduce the number of solders on the SPLA’s payroll by 50%, allowing the government to spend more money on socio-economic development. However, with the possibility of conflict with Sudan on the horizon and a shortage of economic livelihoods to occupy demobilized soldiers, the government continues to devote up to 40% of its expenditures on conflict prevention and security. (As a side note, the security sector was also subject to budget cuts, but remains one of the better-funded sectors of government. See the Minister of Finance & Economic Planning’s speech to the Legislative Assembly last month.) Renewed conflict would not only give the oversized military something to do, but it would also allow the government to justify massive defense expenditures while the population suffers the effects of the austerity measures.

Based on the financial constraints of both countries, I would expect that it is actually in both countries’ interest not to engage in all-out war. This is, of course, unless the ongoing brinkmanship spirals out of control and war cannot be prevented. However, based on the political and military points raised above, a limited conflict along the border potentially serves the interest of both the NCP and the SPLM. If this is the case, we can expect both countries to continue supporting armed proxies in the other country because they are cheaper to support than a conventional military, allow the countries to continue exerting pressure on one another for concessions if/when negotiations resume, and in principle offer the governments plausible deniability for perpetuating instability along the border.

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4 responses

  1. Abdalbasit Saeed

    Dear Lesley
    I enjoyed reading the ‘piece’. It appears you have ‘a bank’ if information at your lap, including the reference to 700 officers telling Badhir “are not prepared for a fight”. In fact Sudan has too many problems and the NCP ‘nneds’ to divert people’s focus away from such problems.
    Kiir, also, has his own set of problems. He committed a “political blunder” when he invaded Hijleej, at the time he did so: shutting oil production and trying to impose Hijleej as a disputed area, knowing that he and Basheer failed to implement the PCA Award. They both are aware the PCA Award is there to be implemented first, and that it is there to stay, and that it is not going to be repealed by any authority. Now, instead of squabling about Hijleej, they have to go back and do the obvious, implement the PCA ‘first’.
    I would like to share with a comment I sent a few days ago to Mr. Alex De Wall ( sense of sudan) on a lecture he presented on 17 April. Here it is:
    “Dear Alex
    Thank you for making a lucid summary of the issues in the renewed violence between (North-South).
    1. You captured the ‘political-legal’ aspect of fault-lines between the two countries, but I think that at the heart of the overarching conflict since August-1955 have been mistrust and ill-will (in the mind-sets of the two sides) as well as contradictory interests fueled by such predispositions.
    2. In my view, the triggering factor for the Hijleej-showdown (10-24 April 12), Hijleej being undisputed during the Interim period (2005-2011), arises from Salva Kiir’s desire to bring Hijleeg to any future negotiating table once he stresses that it is a disputed lot. One issue, here, is: How big is the area of Hijleej that he is contesting? Is it Block-II with an area of about 7400 Km2? Or is it the Hijleej Oil Field, compared to fields such as Neem, Difra and Baloame (in Abyei Area).
    3. It is important to mention here that, short of committing a ‘political blunder’, the Sudan would never (should never) accept any claim by South Sudan to table “Hijleej as disputed area” in agenda items for future negotiation, especially that: firstly, Hijleeg was confirmed as belonging to Sudan as per by the PCA Award on Abyei Area, issued 22 July 2009; and secondly, it has now been ‘liberated’ through the use of armed force and action that drove away the invading South Sudan Army (SSA). Instead, the legitimate agenda item would be “To Implement the PCA Award on Abyei”. You know that I am not a political supporter of the NCP, but I am a committed nationalist who would not compromise when a foreign country invades Sudan, and boasts to the whole world of committing such vice.
    4. You have stated, rightly, that the repudiation of the Framework Agreement signed on 28 June 2011 was “Beshir’s biggest mistake”. I would say that Salva Kiir committed two serious ‘political plunders’ of multiple magnitudes in only four months (January-April 12): Firstly, shutting down South Sudan’s oil production that fetches more than 95percent of his country’s infant treasury; and secondly, invading a neighboring state and occupying a strategic oil-hub in the territory of the country to whom he had been a leading citizen (First Vice-President) less than one year ago. Thirdly, by so doing Salva Kiir is punishing – unnecessarily – 44percent of the people of South Sudan who live in the five states sharing borders with the Sudan. These people (3.5 million according to the 2008 census) cannot reach-out to Juba for eight moths each year during the rains, bearing in mind the weak-to-non-existing road infrastructure. They depend on border retial-trade with the Sudan for daily consumption needs/items such as salt, onions, cooking oil and soap … etc., among other things. Fourthly, for good statesmanship, this is a price too-high to afford, so long as there is a chance to pursue for a negotiated settlement. Now, the Sudan has imposed a state-of-emergency in conflict areas bordering on South Sudan and has prohibited any border-trade, “not a piece of a single date” could be traded across the border, according to Vice-President of Sudan.
    5. Whereas, you appropriately differentiated the status of SPLA-Nuba-chapter and SPLA-Blue-Nile-Chapter (SBNC in Sudan from those of SPLA in South Sudan, you unfortunately retracted and lumped them together with forces/militias inimical to SPLM in South Sudan. I am afraid, the two do not compare – in form or in substance. This is an issue we can take-up in a separate essay.
    Abdalbasit saeed

    1. Abdalbasit,

      Thanks again for your comment!


  2. […] Lesley Anne Warner: “Does War Serve Political Interests in Sudan and South Sudan?” […]

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