The Sudans on the brink of war and state collapse

While we've been fascinated with Egypt's bizarre presidential elections drama and other stories, I and many others have been oblivious to the serious worsening of the situation between the two Sudans. There are very few foreign reporters there — basically only the news agencies at most times — but considering the seriousness of the situation, the potential for many deaths, and the potential impact in East Africa and the Sahel this is worthy of attention. It's also surprising the issue is not getting more scrutiny at the UN.

Here's a quick rundown from published sources.

Omar al-Bashir is threatening to escale recent skirmishes with South Sudan into a full-scale war:

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has said his main goal is now to "liberate" the people of South Sudan from its rulers following recent border clashes.

The former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement has ruled South Sudan since it seceded from Sudan in July 2011.

President Bashir was addressing a rally at his party's headquarters.
Fighting between the two countries has now spread to another area, further adding to fears of all-out war.

This follows an earlier statement by the North's parliament calling the south an "enemy":

(Reuters) - Sudan's parliament branded South Sudan an "enemy" on Monday and called for a swift recapture of a disputed oil-producing region, as rising border tensions pushed the old civil war foes closer to another full-blown conflict.

South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan last July, seized the contested Heglig oilfield last Tuesday, prompting its northern neighbor to vow to recapture the area by "all means".

The oilfield is vital to Sudan's economy, producing about half of the 115,000 barrel-per-day output that remained in its control after South Sudan's secession.

This McClatchy report minces no words:

HEGLIG, Disputed Sudan — Nine months after Sudan split into two nations in search of a peace brokered by the United States, it is now clear that the two sides are at war.

Diplomats discussing the armed conflict talk of skirmishes and dustups, but a visit to this border region shows that what is taking place here is no accidental exchange of fire by troops confused about where the border lies. Instead, what’s happening is a headlong mobilization involving not just thousands of Sudan’s and South Sudan’s best forces and heaviest equipment, but heavily armed rebels from the distant Darfur region fighting alongside the South Sudanese troops.

Whether an emergency peace plan could curb the escalation remains to be seen. But neither side is talking to the other, and the mood here is weighted with the sober intensity of wartime.

On Sunday evening in a looted Sudanese garrison in Heglig, South Sudanese generals drew military positions in the sand with a curtain rod. They were expecting an imminent counteroffensive by Sudanese troops. Soldiers stood by, twitching, on edge.

Suddenly, missiles rained in, and artillery pounded the earth behind.

"We are under attack," yelled South Sudan’s Maj. Gen. Mangar Buong, the commander. Troops scurried, trucks spun out.

The international community has condemned the fighting and has called on South Sudan to withdraw. But its leader, Salva Kiir, has publicly refused to do so.

Also AP, which has this graphic report from Heglig, where the fighting started two weeks ago:

The road to Heglig, an oil town that South Sudan and Sudan are fighting over, is lined with discarded furniture, destroyed buses and tanks, and clusters of dead Sudanese soldiers.

South Sudan's army, known as the SPLA, moved north into Heglig earlier this month, sparking the bloodiest fighting since South Sudan broke off from Sudan last July and became the world's newest nation. A top SPLA official said the south plans to keep moving north, taking territory the south believes it owns. The crisis threatens to widen into all-out war.

An Associated Press reporter was among the first foreign journalists to reach the disputed border since fighting began two weeks ago.

As 2nd Lt. Abram Manjil Kony sped north from the South Sudan military base at the Unity State oil field, he pointed out clusters of fallen Sudanese soldiers. Birds stalked the corpses.

"Jalaba, jalaba," Kony said, meaning "Arab" and, by extension, people from Sudan, which is predominantly Arab while the south is predominantly black.

This is just as South Sudan became the IMF's newest member — just as the North's economic forecast was revised by IMF to a decrease of 3.9% in GDP in  2012. The Sudanese pound, the north's currency, is at a historic low while in the South's capital, Juba, fuel is running out. This Reuters report by Alexander Dziadosz, who has been doing great work (see this report from a town where a dam is being dual-purposed for defense), says the economic prospects of both North and South are crucial to understanding the situation between the two:

(Reuters) - The outcome of the dramatically escalating border fighting between Sudan and South Sudan is more likely to be determined by which of the two faltering economies collapses first than by relative military prowess.

South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July, seized the disputed Heglig oilfield on Tuesday, edging the two former civil war foes closer to full-blown conflict than any time since the South gained independence.

But rather than sparking an all-out military confrontation, each side's aim may now be to target one another's oil facilities and wait for their opponent to crumble under armed insurgencies, popular unrest and fuel shortages.

"It is a question of which side can maintain the basic governance and military structures longer," a Sudan expert with government contacts said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The two countries have already driven their economies to the brink of implosion since the South split away, cleaving the vital oil industry in two.

Squabbling over oil payments and border fighting has withered combined crude output - previously the main source of foreign currency and state revenues for both countries - from around 500,000 barrels a day before partition to just over a tenth of that.

Food prices are soaring on both sides of the border and currencies reeling as officials scramble to make up for the sudden loss of revenues in countries already reeling from years of war, mismanagement and U.S. trade sanctions.But despite their weaknesses, both sides have consistently reckoned they have the upper hand on their foe, partly explaining why fighting has escalated despite the obvious fact that neither side can actually afford to fight a war.

"Khartoum is fighting for its survival," said Peter Bashir Gbandi, a deputy for the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the South's national assembly, during an emotional Juba panel debate packed with bellicose comments and broadcast live on radio.

"Khartoum is economically khallas, collapsing," he said, using the Arabic word for "finished".

Update: Do check out this excellent piece in The Economist too.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.