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The battle for Heglig and the elephant in the room

The hostility between South Sudan and Sudan over Heglig is symptom of the larger unresolved issues between the two states. The CPA established a fragile peace which secession has not strengthened.

Elfadil Ibrahim
7 May 2012

Recent tensions between the Governments of Sudan (GoS) and South Sudan (GoSS) in Heglig immediately evoke past memories. In 1998 the SPLA, the military wing of South Sudan's ruling Sudan's People Liberation Movement's (SPLM), vowed to attack the oilfield in the area after construction of oil infrastructure was completed so as to inflict maximum damage to a central government growing increasingly reliant on oil exports to fund its civil war in the South.

Echoes of past tactics aside, the elephant in the room remains unnoticed.  To many the fact that Heglig falls in South Kordofan means that its status as a territory of the GoS is unquestioned. However the issue is part and parcel of an overarching point of disagreement over Abyei, a region that remains both undefined and disputed.

Can Khartoum get a free ride?

Since the days of quasi-colonial occupation, Sudan and South Sudan's borders have been subject to several changes for administrative purposes. None of this was controversial or of particular interest to either party until the discovery of modest oil reserves and a demarcation attempt by Jaafar      Numeiri's government. Which contributed significant tension to the fragile peace that was later broken by a flagrant breach following the introduction of Sharia law in 1983. Since Chevron's earlier finds in 1980 in the area North of Bentiu, the central government has been quick to assert as much control as it could directly, and where this failed, it did so indirectly by making sure all infrastructure stays in the North.

Fast-forward thirty years to the Addis Ababa talks that recently broke down and, lo and behold, very little has changed. In keeping with the principle of creating 'two mutually viable states,' agreed with the drafting of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), both sides took on the obligation to mitigate the adverse economic impacts of secession. The GoSS has offered $2.6 billion over four years and waived an additional $3 billion in debt out of a total $5.6 billion owed to it, to soften the economic blow secession has caused on Sudan's economy from loss of oil revenues. However the GoS has instead demanded $7.4 billion and a refining/treatment fee of $34 per barrel, preferably in crude to remedy the refining deficit its refineries are currently experiencing. The GoS is losing roughly $10 billion in lost profits in the next four years whilst GoSS has been enriched by 100%, and would be making roughly $24 billion over the next four years (assuming the continuation of oil exportation).

The real issue it appears concerns the interpretation of what obligations are implied by creating 'two mutually viable states.' Khartoum clearly feels it is the duty of the GoSS to fill the entirety of the revenue gap, whilst GoSS maintains that it owes Khartoum no free ride with its obligation being one of assistance, not full support. On paper, a simple middle ground compromise should not be hard to come by, however, given the bad blood in this regard and the complexity of the background issues, the reality is far from tidy.

The Elephant in the Room: Abyei

When the Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and South Sudan's SPLM formed the Government of National Unity in 2005, bringing to a close what seemed to be a never-ending civil war, Chapter IV of the CPA contained a special protocol on Abyei that outlined that the area's boundaries would be delimited once and for all via a special technical boundary committee. The Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) has indeed convened and concluded that Heglig, Bamboo and Diffra (all oil producing areas) were a part of Abyei.

The GoS refused to recognise the decision and appealed instead to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Here the result was more favourable as many of the active oil fields were included as part of Kordofan in GoS territory. However, bear in mind that up to this point, neither the ABC nor the PCA said anything about the status of Abyei as a Northern or Southern territory. This was to be decided in a separate referendum for Abyei initially planned for the same time as the referendum for South Sudan.

The GoS had from the beginning shrewdly calculated that a possible secession of South Sudan would take with it Abyei, which had permanent settlers who were Ngok Dinka (a clan of South Sudan's largest tribe) who had also become militarised and loyal to the SPLM over the last few decades and would without a doubt choose to align themselves with South Sudan. To maximise its interest then, Khartoum opted to embrace the PCA's decision, which bolstered its position, whilst discrediting the ABC's decision which would have ensured that Khartoum would lose out not only on the referendum, but on the oil as well. Logistical obstacles were necessary to complement the adoption of this position, so naturally the GoS resorted to stalling an Abyei referendum and pressing for voting rights for all 400,000 Misseriya (the majority of whom don’t even migrate through Abyei) to mute the vote of the 70,000 Dinka Ngok settled in Abyei.

A vote determining the status of Abyei was stalled even under the Addis Ababa agreement for similar reasons and as a result peace with South Sudan has always been a particularly fragile one.

Money Talks, Peace Doesn't

Unity, as the result of the referendum on the self-determination of South Sudan reflected, was not at all an attractive option when successive governments in Khartoum have made it a point to speak harshly and carry a big stick where oil is concerned. As a result, the SPLM's actions following the signing of the CPA have been geared towards separation from the get go. Neither side for example, took seriously a key obligation to integrate military units along the border, preferring instead a strategy that amounted to brinkmanship.

The CPA wasn't a result of a genuine reform of mentality but was actually a creature of the conditions. For Khartoum the 1990s was a tough time. Having lost financial backing and cheap, subsidised oil from Saudi Arabia following its support for Iraq in the Gulf war, funding a civil war became a particularly strenuous endeavour. For South Sudan, peace talks also looked attractive as it too could cash in on the oil, and security happened to be a necessary prerequisite for commercial production.

The best indication of this is in the Agreement on Wealth Sharing protocol of the CPA, which states in Article 2.1 that 'this agreement does not intend to address ownership of resources.' The devil is indeed in the detail, and the fact that neither party acknowledged any need for the matter to be settled underlines the intent to quickly exploit the oil and 'live it up' for the time being.

The good times however, have come to an abrupt end. For Khartoum this has meant a massive blow economically, and for GoSS it has the potential to turn its sole source of revenue into a white elephant. If anything has become apparent, it is the fact that neither party is genuine in its efforts to create a lasting peace in the immediate future.

For both sides the CPA was rightly described as 'a peace between elites,' though the NCP presented itself as the sole voice of the North, and the SPLM as the voice of Southern Sudanese. The implementation of the CPA left out all parties who have a legitimate stake in the fate of their lands. Where these parties have been involved, it has been done opportunistically by arming and using the relevant tribes as proxy militias.

In reality however, with the breakdown of the traditional forms of dispute resolution that regulated inter-tribal conflict, this has only contributed significantly to the fragility of both states, with a local power vacuum that allows armed militias to operate with unfettered discretion. This contributes to the creation of incidents such as the unrest in South Sudan's Jonglei state that made headlines recently, when clashes between the Murle and the Luo Nuer produced a serious humanitarian situation. South Sudan seized the opportunity to indicate that Khartoum had an indirect hand in the violence. Sudan too plays the blame game when trying to deflect responsibility for any form of unrest on its side.

The GoS had tried to sweep all the dirt from the past under the carpet in recent months, before the shut-down of oil by GoSS, by playing nice and allowing the export of crude oil from South Sudan without export duties and import of oilfield equipment and materials without an import duty. This has not been enough to keep South Sudan's eye off the prize.

It is certainly possible that a solution may be agreed upon to remedy the situation in the short term. However, what has become plainly obvious is that unless the question of ownership of these resource-rich areas – the elephant in the room – is addressed, both parties will continue to lack the ability and interest in pursuing long-term stability and peace.

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