Pride and prejudice in Heglig

The South Sudanese People's Liberation Army has moved into an oil town on the South Sudan/ Sudan border. While nationalist sentiment runs high, the newly separated states can ill afford renewed conflict: political dialogue is both difficult and urgent.

Erwin van Veen Ann Fitz-Gerald
17 April 2012

The air in Juba was thick with excitement when South Sudan declared its independence in 2011 after its referendum. Yet, it was never going to be easy and now both Sudans seem close to falling into the jaws of the ‘conflict trap’ – the phenomenon by which countries with recent experience of conflict are more likely to fall back into conflict. On April 10, the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) took control of Heglig, an oil town perched on the border between Sudan and South-Sudan. It is unclear at the moment whether this is another incident in a long series, or the spark that will explode the powder keg. But it is even more urgent to assess what can be done to prevent a slide back to violent conflict.

The natural response of the international community when faced with such escalations of violence is to call for restraint and dialogue, which is precisely what the United Nation’s Secretary General (UNSG), Mr. Ban Ki Moon, the US government and the African Union’s mediator, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, have done. However, we know that political dialogue requires a sufficient degree of commitment from both parties to have a chance of success. The list of failed attempts at dialogue is a long one. So, to assess whether this call for dialogue is likely to be heeded, at least two questions need to be answered:

First, how much pressure is the international community willing and able to exercise? This is difficult to assess from the outside, but, given the choice, it is likely that key global players such as the US and UN may prioritize Syria and Iran over Sudan. Regionally, the situation is hardly more favourable with Kenya and Ethiopia embroiled in Somalia, and Egypt focused on domestic issues. Libya’s chaotic situation ensures a ready supply of highly mobile manpower and weapons, as evidenced by the situation in Mali, which may make matters worse. Hence, international calls for dialogue may sound louder than the pressure and support the international community can actually generate.

Second, is dialogue welcomed by participants? Several considerations must be taken into account here. To start with, the trail of broken agreements and promises between Sudan and South-Sudan is a long one and mistrust runs deep.  Recent analysis suggests that the SPLA has been stockpiling weapons and that both the SPLA and the Sudanese Armed Forces are arming South Sudanese rebel militia groups. However, little reliable, open-source analysis is available on what exactly is happening in the contested border areas. One also needs to take into account that South-Sudan has limited diplomatic capacity to tell its side of the story. Publicly, however, both sides state they welcome dialogue, which the international community can capitalize on. Yet it is also clear that they are gearing up for other scenarios.  

In addition, South-Sudan is a young and proud state that cherishes its land and its sovereignty. It may well take the view that it now must defend its hard-won autonomy. The country took a drastic step in January by shutting down its oil production in protest over transit fees, and escalation may well be one of its few strategic options left. The South has proven before that it can survive with food distribution lines cut off and oil wealth denied - large parts of its territory have no electricity anyhow – but its leaders would have to make radical political and financial decisions and be accountable to their people for the ensuing hardship. South-Sudan’s domestic peacebuilding and statebuilding agenda would certainly suffer setbacks, its recent commitment to the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding notwithstanding.

And yet, on the face of it, there seem to be sufficient common interests to provide a basis for dialogue.  For one, the human suffering and economic damage of renewed conflict will be huge. Collier and Chauvet have conservatively estimated the domestic and regional cost of a civil war to amount to about 85 billion dollars. The cost of a state descending into conflict with its neighbours can account for two thirds of this amount. This is the figure against which Sudan, South-Sudan and their neighbours must gauge their appetite for dialogue and war.

In short, the signs are not overly hopeful that calls for dialogue can or will be heeded. What can the international community do to help prevent another civil war? Three lessons stand out from the international intervention in the FYR Macedonia in 2001, one of the most successful examples of conflict prevention.

Co-ordinated, fast action between the OSCE, NATO and EU proved critical to an integrated political-security response that was sufficiently context specific. In the case of Sudan, it would be easy to argue that UNMIS and the AU need to swiftly deploy peacekeeping troops into disputed areas like Heglig and that their mediators must immediately commence facilitating a longer-term process to resolve the range of outstanding issues.  However, a lesson from the last few years is that third party intervention, of the UN in particular, has not always been welcomed by Sudan. Moreover, President Kiir stated on April 12 in the South-Sudanese parliament that he had rejected calls from several international leaders, including UNSG Ban Ki-Moon, to pull his troops out of Heglig. Hence, a leading UN role near the contested border seems unlikely. In keeping with the model which kept the pre-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) talks on track, an alternative option could be that the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) partners’ forum steps up and provides an AU-led initiative with logistical, financial and advisory support. The UN could consider supporting this quietly from behind the scenes. 

Strong leadership is essential. It was Kenya that kept the many pre-CPA talks on track and that helped realize several way-stations towards the CPA, such as the Machakos protocol of 2002. Such leadership was also a key ingredient of the successful international intervention in FYR Macedonia, where Mr Van der Stoel, as personal envoy of the OSCE chairman in office, was a highly respected and trusted facilitator who enjoyed the confidence of all parties. As noted above, Kenya may not be able to fulfil this role again at this point in time. In that case, Ethiopia remains one of the few trusted parties for both sides. If its top leadership could convince the presidents of Sudan and South-Sudan to work towards a political agreement, the tide might be turned and Ethiopia would render the region a very valuable service. This is one of the calls that international leaders could consider making. Given the trail of broken promises, however, the conflict must be addressed at the highest levels. It would be helpful if both sides could refrain from any aggression to Ethiopian peacekeepers patrolling Abeyei in the meantime.

Finally, the intervention in FYR Macedonia showed that confidence building is vital. This could begin with credible and verifiable information being collected and shared from the conflict-affected border areas - the lack of reliable information being one of the major difficulties to date. Rumours spread too quickly at the moment, feeding distrust and risking catalysing ill-considered action. An international monitoring mission, possibly IGAD sponsored and AU-supported, might be a way out of this conundrum - but speed will be of the essence.  

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