Renewed Fighting in Sudan


06/03/2011: Second Line of Defense Backgrounder

Sudan’s northern-based government in Khartoum has forcefully seized control of the disputed Abyei region, risking renewed flare-up of the civil war just when the South Sudan is about to become an independent country on July 9. Northern President Omar al-Bashir had warned that his government would not recognize South Sudan’s scheduled independence declaration unless it accepted Khartoum’s possession of Abyei.

The move occurred just when a U.N. Security Council delegation arrived in Khartoum to discuss the Abyei issue with Bashir’s government. Although both sides claimed the other fired the first shot, the North has exploited the opportunity to seize the territory by force and confront the international community with a fait accompli. The United States has called on President Bashir and southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir to agree on ways to reestablish the ceasefire, resume implementing the peace agreement, and restart negotiations on a political settlement regarding Abyei’s status.

The Northern Sudanese Armed Forces recent seizure of the main town in Sudan’s disputed oil region of Abyei could disrupt what until now has been a fairly successful independence referendum in South Sudan. It underscores the imperative of undertaking urgent actions to address other unresolved issues that risk renewed fighting and a resumption of their only recently suspended two-decades’ old conflict. After several rounds of protracted talks, the Government of Sudan, led by the National Congress Party (NCP), and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) agreed that Southern Sudan would hold a referendum from January 9 to January 15, 2011, to determine whether it would become its’ own state or remain part of a united Sudan. The referendum was part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of conflict between the SPLM and the Sudanese Government and its sponsored militias.

Unfortunately, several important questions that could still derail a successful transition to independence have failed to been resolved by the CPA and subsequent rounds of talks. A litany of issues remains in dispute, such as future borders and citizenship, public administration and local security, economics and energy, as well as the international relations of the two new countries. Measures have been undertaken by the international community in order to ensure that levels of violence seen prior to the CPA did not recur, but the global response has been constrained by various considerations. Khartoum has taken steps to minimize the capabilities and mandates of the international institutions that have been active in Sudan, as it had done during the Darfur crisis in Western Sudan. Instead of being able to deploy a robust peacekeeping force for the referendum, the foreign military role was largely been limited to logistical and organizational support. Second, the role of the African Union was further constrained due to both the SPLM’s suspicions and the 2000 Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU).

The United Nations adopted a position of neutrality toward the referendum. It provided only technical and logistical assistance to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission. To monitor the situation in the lead-up to the referendum, UNMIS had 10,000 peacekeepers under its command in Southern Sudan. The UNMIS sought to increase its personnel in Sudan as a hedge against potential violence, but the Sudanese government objected to a proposal by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to increase its numbers by 2,000 more troops to create a buffer zone between North and South.To ensure referendum overseers were well versed on election procedures and standards, the UN Integrated Referendum and Electoral Division (UNIRED) hosted workshops across south Sudan. By airlifting voting materials into areas inaccessible by road, UNMIS provided voting materials to more people. UNMIS personnel enhanced physical security while also rendering logistical and organizational support. Some 16,000 Southern Sudan Police Service officers were trained by UNMIS in security procedures, such as riot control techniques for the referendum.

The United Nations also played an important role as a forum for galvanizing international action. When the referendum appeared to be in trouble, world leaders exploited the occasion of the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York to publicize the need to accelerate preparations for the issue. On September 24, 2010, President Barack Obama and others highlighted the importance of securing a free and fair referendum ballot in South Sudan and laying the groundwork for the period after the vote. In the case of the South Sudan, the UN departed from its previous strategy in areas of conflict. Instead of reacting to a conflict that has already emerged, such as in Darfur, the United Nations took preventive steps to avert conflict by deploying more traditional peacekeeping forces in roles such as troop deployment and training local police forces and by ensuring an efficient and transparent electoral process. The future of UNMIS has become unclear now that Sudan is in the process of splitting, though perhaps one or both new states would favor some kind of continued UN military presence along their new border or to assist with demilitarization and de-mining as well as border security and confidence-building.

Many international institutions have been active in the South Sudan referendum process. The EU has provided general humanitarian aid to people affected by conflict and facilitated the referendum process with its peace-building initiatives. These measures have included rendering assistance to nomadic groups and strengthening relations along the north-south divide in the run-up to the referendum. Furthermore, the European Council joined with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to address Sudan’s debt burden, estimated at more than $30 billion.  Beyond financial support, the EU has supplemented the UNMIS electoral observation mission by deploying an EU Election-Observation Mission consisting of 110 observers from 27 European countries, in addition to non-members Canada, Norway, and Switzerland. The observers were deployed in different parts of South Sudan, where they documented the referendum process and conducted meetings with both official institutions and NGOs.

The African Union’s Constitutive Act constrained its role in the South Sudan, which “respect[s] borders existing on achievement[s] of independence.” This wording reflects the organization’s prime principle of supporting Africa’s post-colonial borders while promoting integration and unity among Africans. The SPLM was aware of this orientation, which was reinforced by AU members’ fear that allowing South Sudan to become independent would encourage secessionist aspirations in other African countries. It led the SPLM to question whether the organization could remain genuinely neutral—and play the role of “honest broker”–when overseeing a process that could result in the partition of Africa’s largest country. The AU’s most visible role in Sudan was its participation in the United Nations Africa Union Mission 6 in Darfur (UNAMID). UNAMID’s primary objective is to protect civilians within Darfur, but the mandate also includes supporting the political processes in Sudan as well as monitoring agreements such as the CPA, which encompasses the January referendum.  However, UNAMID had no mandate beyond Darfur, negating any presence in the South. Khartoum also constrained UNAMID’s resources, which hindered its effectiveness.


The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) established the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) in 2008 to examine the Darfur situation and recommend how to promote accountability and reconciliation there. This panel was led by several former African presidents: Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Pierre Buyoya of Burundi, and Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria. The PSC later expanded the panel’s mandate to encompass areas beyond Darfur and “assist the Sudanese parties in implementing the CPA and related processes.” The AUHIP was perhaps less useful inside Sudan than internationally. Due to the AU’s status as the lead security institution in Africa, other foreign actors sought to collaborate with the AUHIP, thereby helping promote a coherent international approach. In June 2010, moreover, the NCP and the SPLM agreed that the AUHIP would assist them in determining their relations after the referendum.

These international institutions will now need to work with important foreign governments, including the United States, to help resolve four sets of overlapping issues, including borders and citizenship, economics and energy, public administration and local security, and, finally, the international relations of the two new countries. One obvious question is where to draw the new north-south interstate border. About 320 kilometers are still under dispute in five areas, the most important being the Abyei region, where the issue of which state to join proved so explosive that the parties cancelled a parallel referendum scheduled in January 2011 on that issue. Postponement of this ballot was caused by who should vote in the referendum. Misseriya nomads move into the region, where the Ngok Dinka tribe resides year round, from the north to obtain water and food for their animals. No easy solution exists. It might be useful to consider creative ways in which the region’s inhabitants could have dual nationality status.

In addition to Abyei, the other four disputed border regions include that separating Renk county in Upper Nile from the north’s White Nile state, that between the south’s Unity state and the north’s Southern Kordofan, that between the south’s Bahr el-Ghazal and Darfur in the north, and the border between Western Bahr el-Ghazal and Southern Darfur. Armed clashes in any of these five regions, but especially Abyei, could easily escalate into a wider North-South war due to the large number of troops concentrated nearby and the fact that the parties to the local dispute sometimes receive assistance from external sources in southern or northern Sudan.Beyond demarcating the boundaries, the actors must decide how “hard” to make the North-South border. One extreme would involve a heavily fortified frontier that very few individuals or resources could cross, similar to the arrangement after Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia. On the other hand, a more laissez-faire border regime would allow individuals without visas, animals and other resources to cross the border with minimal regulatory impediments. The second “softer” approach would encourage mutually beneficial economic development and reciprocity, such as joint trans-border projects. Such an arrangement would also respect the rights of nomads’ animals to freely graze, a possibility precluded by instituting a heavily secured border similar.

A related issue is the question of what citizenship can southerners living in the north and Arabs residing in the south obtain. The worst outcome would be the deprivation of any citizenship for individuals, rendering them stateless. Another bad outcome involves expelling or discriminating against individuals based on their race and ethnicity. The ideal solution would involve establishing a means whereby individuals could receive some form of dual citizenship with assurances that their rights would be protected like other citizens. Economics and energy are the second set of issues. Wherever they draw their new frontiers, one certainty is that both regimes will depend heavily on the revenue they earn from oil sales. Oil revenue accounts for almost all the revenue of South Sudan, and more than half the budget of the Khartoum government. Under the CPA, the two sides divided the money they earned from the oil sales. When they become two separate countries, their central governments will have to establish a mechanism by which oil revenues could flow to both states equally. Perhaps more importantly, Sudan’s possession of the one lone oil pipeline—which connects the landlocked south to Port Sudan to the Red Sea in the North—underscores the need for the nations’ leaders to reach an agreement to split the related fees involved in its maintenance and use.

Although they will naturally contest access to this resource, the oil sector also creates a form of interdependence between the two states. North Sudan would logically seek a means to gain some of the South’s oil takings, whereas the South will desire access to the North’s oil transportation networks—at least until it can construct its own pipeline through Ethiopia or Kenya, or devise a way of creating a South Sudanese mining industry with the capacity to exhume would could very well be very lucrative natural resource deposits. It is believed that South Sudan rests above potential deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, and coltan, but conflict and general disarray has impeded excavation efforts. Until the South is capable of either building a pipeline or untapping what may lie beneath South Sudanese territory,  both regimes would benefit from sustaining conditions that stimulate investment by oil and extraction companies. Indeed, a time must come when the two regimes can obtain and dole out Sudan’s holdings in a fair manner (such as water and state-owned companies) and dispatch its liabilities, on top of the aforementioned vast international debt, amounting roughly $30 billion.  SPLM representatives have refused demands to deal with Sudan’s debt, given their suspicion that Khartoum utilized money loaned to the nation in order to pay for its war against the south.

One of these essential benign conditions potential investors look for is effective public administration and local security. As newly independent countries, both the North and the South will need to adopt new constitutions and hold new national elections. The South has had some six years to prepare for independence in July when the six-month transition period ends. They have succeeded in converting their militia into an army with foreign training, but they still need help with education, agriculture, and the training of an adequate corps of public administrators and police. Persistent political and ethnic rivalries within the SPLM leadership and among the South’s 50 tribes could present a problem. For example, in 2009, autonomous militias within the SPLM violently clashed with one another. But the immediate problem is the North’s seizure of Abyei, which threatens to undermine the entire hard-won peace process.