War or Peace in South Sudan? Khartoum Has Yet to Decide

By Eric Reeves

December 9, 2010 (SSNA) — Commentary on the impending referenda for southern Sudan and the Abyei border region, while proliferating rapidly, has reached no consensus about how the National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum will respond to this electoral process, the key feature of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And yet the decision of this brutal security cabal—whether or not to accept the results of these referenda—will have immense consequences not only for Africa’s largest country, but for the nine countries it borders. An entire region is now perversely subject to the calculations of a ruthlessly survivalist regime, whose President is under international indictment for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, and whose most powerful members are all complicit in atrocity crimes not only in Darfur, but in previous military campaigns in the Nuba Mountains (Southern Kordofan), Southern Blue Nile, and the oil regions along the North/South border. A war that might cost the region more than $100 billion—in addition to incalculable human suffering and destruction—may be initiated by men guilty of massive atrocity crimes and who survive only by ruthlessly deploying their notorious National Intelligence and Security Service.

In assessing the future of Sudan, some downplay the chance of renewed conflict between North and South, arguing that war would simply be too costly for the regime in all ways; others are convinced that the most brutal elements within the NCP—best represented by the powerful presidential adviser Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e—will in the end prevail by arguing that the loss of the South would create an unacceptably high security risk to the regime, economically and militarily. If the decision is for war, then Khartoum will manufacture an excuse to resume military efforts, in any number of ways: by simply refusing to accept the January 9, 2011 referendum results; by encouraging large-scale violence against southern Sudanese living in the North, inevitably provoking Southern retaliation; by seizing the oil fields in the northern sections of Unity State (South Sudan); by further misinforming and politically misleading the migratory Misseriya Arabs in the South Kordofan region north of Abyei—tempting them with weapons and money (in various forms) to escalate violence against the indigenous Ngok Dinka of Abyei (both are heavily armed at this point); by destabilizing the South through the ambitious use of proxy militia forces (including the maniacal Lord’s Resistance Army); or by continuing to escalate provocative military attacks on civilian and military targets in the South, a number of which have been confirmed over the past month.

The choice is Khartoum’s and no one can know which way the regime will jump, although international pressure to prevent war is belatedly rising. For what has been only occasionally remarked is that Khartoum has every reason not to tip its hand; its interests, perversely, lie in speaking and acting in ways that are conspicuously and flagrantly self-contradictory; the goal is to leave Western and African diplomatic actors unsure about what must be done to “guarantee” Khartoum’s peaceful acceptance of referendum results. Must the leadership of the Government of South Sudan be pushed to “compromise” more, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration have recently suggested very publicly? Must more concessions be offered by other parties to the negotiations? Will the U.S. be asked to concede more to Khartoum than it already has? Will the Obama administration move further in “decoupling Darfur and the Darfur issue” from discussions about the referenda for South Sudan and Abyei? In other words, will the Obama administration offer more on the issue that matters most to Khartoum, viz. State Department designation of Khartoum as a state sponsor of terrorism? (Significantly, there is strong evidence in recent WikiLeaks documents suggesting that Khartoum still supports Hamas by serving as a conduit for Iranian arms bound for Gaza.)

Here we should note that U.S. officials now speak ever more insistently about one referendum, not two referenda: the phrase “the referendum for southern Sudan,” was repeated—without qualification—a half dozen times in just a few paragraphs in recent remarks by the USAID Sudan Mission Director, William Hammink (November 23, 2010). Not only are the administration’s diplomats no longer expecting an Abyei referendum, they have been forced to the diplomatic sidelines on the Abyei issue by the incompetence of envoy Gration. The African Union has now superseded the US, as well as the East African nations of IGAD, and other key partners in the negotiation of the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)—Norway and the UK. The primary mediator is now Thabo Mbeki, chair of the African Union High-Level “Implementation Panel,” which originally was to have focused on Darfur, where meaningful peace talks have collapsed entirely. But U.S. diplomatic failure has left the door open for the ambitious Mbeki, even as the U.S. is still expected by Khartoum to provide the biggest carrots. The talks on Abyei have become dysfuntionally trilateral.

Moreover, in moving Mbeki to the fore of negotiations over Abyei and other contentious North/South issues, the international community has turned to someone who has been insightfully, if embarrassingly, assessed in a very recent issue of Africa Confidential (November 19, 2010, Vol. 51 No. 23), which provides a superbly detailed analysis of the Abyei crisis:

“[There is] widespread Sudanese criticism of Mbeki’s handling of both the Darfur and the North-South issues; [he is] widely seen as soft on the National Congress Party. One Ngok Dinka civil society leader told [Africa Confidential] Mbeki was basically telling the Ngok that the Abyei Protocol and Permanent Court of Arbitration boundaries must all be renegotiated because the Misseriya wouldn’t budge.”

None of this is lost on the Khartoum regime, which sees in Mbeki’s attitude toward the Ngok an invitation to extend the Abyei crisis, since doing so has already brought the chief mediator so far to their side. As I’ve noted recently, the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which dominates the Government of South Sudan, has sought to make every possible compromise on Abyei, and yet Khartoum remains obdurate. In the end, the Ngok Dinka themselves may act unilaterally—either by denying the Misseriya their normal migratory routes (the traditional reconciliation conference prior to Misseriya migration is belated, and its convening has not yet been scheduled), or by unilaterally conducting an Abyei referendum. Either action might easily spark violence between the Misseriya and the Ngok that could rapidly escalate, drawing in both the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), many of whose leaders come from the Abeyi region. Resolution of the Abyei crisis may not be achieved prior to the Southern referendum and the threat of violence will only grow; at the Abyei Referendum Forum (November 15 – 16), the final conference statement from Juba included the declaration that “if no vote is held on 9 January, the Ngok will use ‘other means’ to join the South” (Africa Confidential (November 19, 2010, Vol. 51 No. 23).

Given what Mbeki represents as the world’s end-game response to this most urgent of crises, why should the regime abandon its present strategic inscrutability on Abyei, as well as other unresolved issues? Continuing uncertainty is Khartoum’s ally, even as it provides much needed breathing room for a regime that is in all likelihood still not fully committed to a single course of action.

Indeed, the present situation presents itself as a kind of calculus problem: on the one hand, the regime is asking what (if it chooses peace) can still be extracted in negotiations—on Abyei, but also oil revenue-sharing, border disputes (borders that will define the location of large tracts of arable land), the sharing of massive external debt (some US$38 billion), security arrangements, and citizenship issues. On the other hand, the regime is assessing what will be lost if it refuses to allow the South to secede, thereby precipitating renewed war. What response can be expected from those with economic and military leverage? How effective will Southern military resistance be? Will the SPLA be able to attack and cripple the oil infrastructure on which both North and South depend? (The Southern leadership of course knows full well that if war resumes there will be no further oil revenues from Khartoum, on which the Government of South Sudan is now overwhelmingly dependent.)

We can ask the questions, and know that Khartoum’s security cabal is asking them as well; but how they will finally be answered no one can say, because our understanding of the actual calculus deployed in deliberations is finally limited.

But we do know a good deal about the military facts on the ground in Sudan, and what they imply about any calculus guiding Khartoum’s decision. We know, for example, much about its purely military capabilities, including its troop and militia totals, its inventory of heavy and light weapons, and its approximate force deployments, thanks especially to the diligent research and reports of the Small Arms Survey (SAS). We know what the current levels of military deployment in Darfur are; and we know from both the SAS and sources on the ground—many of them connected to the Southern churches—about military deployments along the North/South border. Unfortunately, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan—UNMIS—has proved weak and ineffectual on too many occasions, and has been unable to ascertain and publicize key facts about military actions and movements. UNMIS civilian and military leadership is weak, and far too many peacekeepers are poorly motivated and excessively risk-averse; the mission is also hamstrung by Khartoum in any effort to investigate in regions north of the border or even in northern Abyei. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UN DPKO) has shown no inclination to push back on the regime or to speak honestly about the need to create a military buffer zone along the contested border regions.

This augurs poorly for a peace stabilization mission after the referendum, whose results will come into full force only with the end of the “interim period” designated by the CPA (July 9, 2011). Preparations for a post-referendum force to augment and ultimately transform UNMIS—to redefine its mandate and to provide proper manpower and equipment, with fully adequate transportation, monitoring, and communications capacity—are dangerously behind schedule. Unsurprisingly, Khartoum opposes the deployment of additional forces to UNMIS, forces necessary to create an effective observational presence in the border regions (moreover, the 2,000 proposed new UN peacekeepers would take several months to deploy). Consequently, the chances for military confrontation along the North/South border—deliberate or accidental—remain dangerously numerous; movement toward creating a buffer zone, an effective separation of forces, is presently stymied by Khartoum’s adamant refusal to commit to this critical step in securing the peace, and by UN DPKO disingenuousness.

Here, for context, we must understood that there have been a number of recent and quite telling military attacks by Khartoum’s forces on locations in the South throughout November, including an SPLA installation in Bahr el-Ghazal, the killing of ten SPLA troops in Upper Nile, and a bombing attack on a civilian voter registration site, also in Bahr el-Ghazal; thousands of civilians have fled in fear of further bombings. New bombing attacks on sites in Bahr el-Ghazal were reported on December 7. Intimidating flights along the border by SAF military jet aircraft also continue to create a sense of terror and intimidation, keeping military tensions extremely high. The Sudan Ecumenical Forum has recently provided a compendium of “referendum-related incidents” through November 2010, and these include numerous additional attacks on civilians (see also The New Republic, October 18, 2010), kidnappings and asset stripping of the rapidly growing number of Southerners returning to the South, threats against Southerners in the North, as well as SAF troop movements (most unreported by UNMIS). Although the SPLM leadership has been impressively restrained in responding to these provocations, there is no guarantee that all Southern military commanders will prove similarly restrained in the face of future, yet more provocative attacks.

Two large, intensely hostile, and heavily armed forces are in some places along the border close enough to taunt one another verbally. The possibility for an accidental sparking of unmanageable violence is great. Command-and-control is weak in some sectors. Khartoum refuses to incorporate into SAF ranks its own components of the Joint Integrated Units created by the CPA, leaving a dangerously large number of soon to be unemployed troops—mainly former Khartoum-backed Southern militia members—without employment but plenty of weapons. Moreover, despite acquisition of significant arms and military capabilities since 2005, the SPLA has not been able to acquire advanced weapons and weapons systems at nearly the same rate as Khartoum’s SAF. This asymmetry in military hardware may tempt an attack, despite the reputation of SAF forces as inadequately trained and often suffering from poor morale.

Highly aggressive statements by senior officials of the Khartoum regime—along with untenable denials of well-established aerial attacks, coming from senior military and political officials—hardly work to create an atmosphere conducive to peace. Salah Gosh, former head of the security services and now a senior advisor to al-Bashir, recently spoke of Khartoum’s “Plan B,” should the regime judge—on whatever grounds—that the SPLM has violated the electoral terms of the CPA: “The battle smoke would cover the south and not the north.” The tone of Gosh’s comments on the implications of Southern secession are also entirely in character with others from the regime; in his contempt we can see how little real concern there has been for the CPA obligation to “make unity attractive” to the people of the South: “[Gosh said that in the event of secession] God will have removed the burden of developing and creating infrastructure in the south,” a task that has been undertaken in no serious way since the signing of the CPA in January 2005.

The extent of Khartoum’s growing economic woes also provides a motive for resumed violence, if the regime calculates that it can capture and retain control of the oil fields that lie in South Sudan. Certainly if large-scale fighting resumes, such control will be Khartoum’s primary strategic ambition, even as it will be the corresponding ambition of the SPLA to shut down oil production by whatever means necessary, and however destructively. Khartoum’s economic woes, coming after more than a decade of rapid growth fueled by oil revenues, are symbolized by the unplanned and quite significant de facto devaluation of the Sudanese pound, and also reflected in a desperate shortage of foreign exchange reserves to support the currency. (Unsurprisingly, inflation is also rising from what are already high levels.) To the extent this devaluation reflects international perception of a Northern Sudan that will begin to decline economically and financially after it loses control of oil production and revenues from the South, this provides yet another incentive for war. The regime is trying to talk up its post-secession economic viability—making wildly untenable predictions about oil production in the North and increases in agricultural output (this from a regime that has never provided adequate food supplies to its own people, but rather engages in food exports that have proved lucrative only for the regime and its cronies in giant agro-businesses). This posturing, however, is little more than whistling in the dark, and further decline in the value of the pound (nowhere mentioned in Khartoum’s recently enacted budget) may reach a trip-wire point in the regime’s calculations about war and peace.

If Khartoum chooses war over peace, if it follows up on recent threats not to recognize the results of the referendum, this will reflect a sense that responsibility for renewed violence can be sufficiently blurred, and that despite inevitable international condemnation, there will be no consequences that are unsustainable. The regime counts on support from the Arab League, especially Egypt, which has been pushing hard behind the scenes for a delay of the referenda and has always opposed Southern secession. Egypt has also been untroubled by the atrocity crimes that have defined Khartoum’s military campaigns; indeed, it is widely known that Egyptian pilots flew attack missions in Darfur, missions that often targeted civilians and civilian livelihoods.

For its part, the African Union may be less accommodating of Khartoum’s actions, but its view of the human costs of war in Sudan was all too aptly represented in very recent remarks by AU Commissioner Jean Ping. Ping accused the International Criminal Court of “two-speed justice” in cases involving Africa, and implied that the crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and the al-Bashir regime in Darfur were those of “little chicken-thieves.” Such unspeakable callousness figures largely in Khartoum’s assessment of any AU response to its actions against the South.

What to Look for in the Coming Weeks

If we can’t fully understand the final operational calculus by which Khartoum will decide whether or not to resume war as a way of forestalling Southern secession, there are clear warning signs. Moreover, uncertainty about the regime’s response should in no way retard international peacekeeping efforts designed to convert the present, largely ineffective UNMIS into a well-equipped force with strong civilian and military leadership. Priority must be given to securing a mandate that will permit the separation of hostile forces along the border regions, and all other post-referendum stabilization tasks should be of subordinate importance and urgency.

What are the most telling warning signs to be alert to? Targeting the Southern leadership for assassination (especially Salva Kiir) would be the most provocative and destabilizing action Khartoum could undertake (inevitably this would be proxy agents); certainly the South should increase security for all senior leaders in the Government of South Sudan. The assassination of Salva Kiir, Pagan Amum, Luka Biong, Nhial Deng, or a number of other leaders could easily become a casus belli.

Just as worrying are increasingly disturbing reports about hostility toward Southerners in the North, including on the part of senior regime officials. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group notes that in September 2010, Information Minister Kamal Obeid “sparked controversy when he said that if the South chose secession, ‘Southerners will not enjoy citizenship rights, jobs or benefits, they will not be allowed to buy or sell in Khartoum market, and they will not be treated in hospitals.’” Reports, especially from church groups, suggest a dramatic increase in hostility, including threats of violence, toward Southerners—threats coming from mosques, state-controlled media, and a broad cross-section of Northern Sudanese society. If large-scale violence begins against the 1.5 million Southerners the SPLM estimates remain in Northern Sudan, then retaliation against Northerners in the South will be unstoppable; yet further ethnic retaliation will inevitably follow, and escalation in military actions along the border becomes highly likely.

It is Abeyi, however, that remains the most dangerous and likely flashpoint for renewed war, and this because it is at present the most effective tool in maintaining uncertainty about the regime’s ultimate intentions. Many Misseriya have been misled by Khartoum into believing that their grazing rights in are at risk, despite the fact that they are guaranteed by the CPA and those guarantees have been emphatically reiterated by the SPLM leadership. As the International Crisis Group notes in its recent report, "Some in Khartoum have stoked such concerns, and encouraged the Misseriya to fight for participation in the Abyei referendum." From the perspective of the Ngok Dinka, the Misseriya have become proxies for Khartoum, and this view extends to the SPLM leadership:

“President Salva Kiir alluded to reports that Khartoum was encouraging Misseriya to establish permanent settlements in Abyei. ‘We cannot give a piece of the land to the Misseriya… don’t think the NCP is [so] powerful that they can take the land by force. If they attack us, we have the right to self-defence,’ he said.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks [dateline: Abyei], December 1, 2010

For its part, Khartoum has decided on a policy of continuing military threats, and has increased its forces around the Abyei northern border area. In October 2010 the Small Arms Survey reported in “The Militarization in Abyei”:

“Independent observers say that the build-up of forces began in May–June [2010], with the 10th Division in Babanusa being expanded and supported with tanks and heavy weapons. In July–August, reinforcements moved towards the North–South border, a likely flashpoint for renewed war if southerners vote for independence in their referendum, also scheduled for January 2011. The most heavily-armed part of the Abyei area today is reported to be around the Diffra oil field in the extreme north. Senior SPLM officials claim that four battalions have been deployed around Diffra, with battalions in other areas being beefed up and paramilitary training camps opened in three other areas.”

The same report makes clear that Khartoum has longed armed the most radical elements of the Misseriya as a potential proxy military force:

“Confidential military documents made available to the Small Arms Survey make clear that the Khartoum government has, since the CPA, armed the Missiriya Humr. One document dated 1 November 2008 records the dispatch of 600 AK-47 assault weapons, 27 7.6 mm rifles, and six 66 mm and 75 mm mortars to Mohamed Omar al Ansari, the leader of the Abyei Liberation Front….”

The SPLM has made the difficult decision not to respond to military provocations that appear to be increasing (and in the process, highlighting the weakness of the current UNMIS for monitoring purposes). The SPLM has also made the difficult decision to reach some compromise on Abyei, despite the previous authoritative findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission created by the CPA and the July 2009 ruling on Abyei by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague); notably, the latter decision was accepted by Khartoum at the time of the ruling. One compromise would be for the SPLM to offer citizenship to the Misseriya as well as political representation in the new Government of South Sudan. Further concessions have already been offered on the contested issue of Abyei residency—and in the form of increased oil-revenues if Khartoum simply cedes Abyei to the South (the regime has now made timely conducting of an Abyei referendum impossible). So far no compromises have succeeded. Uncertainty and the opportunity it creates for yet more concessions, more sweeteners, especially from the U.S., are one explanation. But too much evidence remains that the regime has not foregone the option of renewed conflict, including seizure of all or parts of the oil regions, with the goal of presenting a military fait accompli for a new stage of negotiations.

If we can’t know what Khartoum will decide, simple prudence dictates that all possible international pressure—economic and military—should be brought to bear on the regime to forego war, and that the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan should be urgently reconfigured to permit monitoring of the border regions and to begin the immensely difficult task of separating the potential belligerents. Khartoum has left the world no choice but to assume the worst.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.

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