By Eric Reeves
February 7, 2012 (SSNA) — In mid-December 2011 it was possible to see the early features of Sudan’s third civil war. In mid-February 2012 it is possible to see how the conflicts defining that early history have brought Sudan to the precipice of all-out war, involving virtually every geographic region of what was—prior to the independence of South Sudan in July—the largest country in Africa. For independence did not mean an end to the genocidal National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP)regime in Khartoum; it did not resolve the many critical issues that were left outstanding at the time of independence (July 2011); and now, threatened with the loss of oil revenues from production sites in South Sudan, Khartoum is warning ever more stridently of war against its new sovereign neighbor. Such a war will have catastrophic consequences for civilians, as the first two civil wars did, during which as many as 3 million civilians died, and more than5 million were displaced.
Presently, in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states—border states in the north, but tied in many ways to the South—Khartoum’s savage military campaigns, including indiscriminate civilian bombardment, have already displaced hundreds of thousands, with an unknown but very large number of civilian casualties. Far more than 100,000 are known to have fled to Ethiopia and South Sudan; the number in transit is likely much higher. In early October the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted that the harvests in the region would "generally fail." Two months later, in December, warnings of critical shortages of food were issued by various humanitarian organizations, including the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNet). Also in December, FEWSNet predicted that without food aid, near-famine conditions would prevail in many places by March—less than a month from now. There are presently no means of providing the necessary food aid, and despite a ratcheting up of its rhetoric, the Obama administration seems unwilling to propose actions that might either change the thinking in Khartoum or open humanitarian corridors without securing the regime’s consent.
In January the Satellite Sentinel Project released two reports: one showing a nearly complete military encirclement of the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan) and its remaining population (estimates vary, but the figure may easily be as many as 400,000 people); the other showing that the choke-point for refugees attempting to leave the region had been closed by Khartoum’s artillery. No one is being allowed to leave or enter; the Nuba Mountains are a vast arena of starvation and ultimately annihilation.
Conditions in neighboring Blue Nile are no better: there as well massive civilian displacement and the complete lack of international humanitarian access have endangered many hundreds of thousands of lives. And those who flee to South Sudan face aerial attack: Khartoum has several times attacked refugee camps or staging areas, most notoriously the major refugee camp at Yida (Unity State) on November 10—three months ago. The attacks continue, and so do Khartoum’s transparently mendacious denials.
Because no agreement was reached on what fees South Sudan would pay to Khartoum for transit of its oil to Port Sudan, and because the regime militarily seized the contested border region of Abyei in May, negotiations have become increasingly strained and appear to have broken down. Khartoum has dug in its heels, insisting on a truly preposterous proposal that would have war-ravaged South pay Khartoum billions of dollars and pay an ongoing $36 per barrel transit fee. This is not negotiation, but extortion. For example, Ukraine receives from Russia $7.80 to $9.50 per ton of oil transported through its territory by means of the immense Druzhba pipeline (there are approximately seven barrels in a ton of oil, so the price per barrel in transit fees would be $1.10 – $1.36). In 2009 Cameroon was negotiating an increase in the transit fee for oil from Chad passing through its territory from $0.41 to $1.00 per barrel. Khartoum has actually raised the fee it proposes, from $32 per barrel to $36 per barrel. This alone suggests that the regime has not been serious, but rather has sought to play an extremely dangerous game of brinksmanship—or to create a casus belli. To judge by the warlike language coming from senior officials in Khartoum, the latter seems more likely.
And if it was a game of brinksmanship that Khartoum was playing, they’ve stepped over the edge: South Sudan has shut down all its oil facilities and refuses to send oil north; rather, it is moving ahead with plans to move the oil to the Kenyan coast for export. This is risky for a variety of reasons, but the leadership in Juba has concluded, rightly, that there is simply no arrangement on oil shipped through the north that is both reasonable and can be guaranteed.
Khartoum has put itself in a position from which it can extricated only by means of military seizure of the oilfields in the South. Indeed, with the seizure of Abyei it has already unilaterally claimed the Diffra oil production site, which—though small—still generates approximately $80 million per year, all of which should belong to South Sudan; and there may be other promising sites nearby. Khartoum’s predicament has been brought on by years, finally decades of mismanagement of the northern economy. It squandered the oil wealth generated from 1999 through July 2011, mainly on self-enrichment, buying political support, and exorbitant military expenditures.
And the consequences of this mismanagement are everywhere evident in an economy that is a shambles, a situation that in turn poses a grave political threat. Inflation has been running at around 20 percent; the Sudanese pound continues its precipitous decline; foreign exchange reserves are almost non-existent, leaving import companies desperate for financing; fiscal realities have obliged the regime to cut the highly popular subsidies on fuel and sugar; and unemployment is growing. And towering over all this is a massive external debt of almost$40 billion, an amount that Khartoum cannot service, let alone repay. Whatever chances there were for debt relief from the West have been dissipated by the regime’s military actions, and the refusal of South Sudan to accept any part of this debt—the benefits of which they saw only in the form of weapons used against them.
Notably, some 700military officers—on hearing of regime President al-Bashir’s recent briefing of senior military officials, telling them that they should be preparing for "all-out war with the South"—warned the regime leadership that this was unacceptable, and that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) were already overstretched on three fronts (South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur). More senior SAF generals, including Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein (indicted by the International Criminal Court for massive "crimes against humanity") have already seized much of the political power in Khartoum, and (Field Marshal) al-Bashir is all too aware of the precedent for military coups in Sudanese history. On this occasion, his allies lie in the senior ranks, and his opponents appear to lie in the middle ranks; balancing these forces may be an impossible task. But presiding over an economy that is imploding is an equally unattractive option, and this is why al-Bashir recently declared (February 3)"The climate now is closer to a climate of war than one of peace." He went on to say that his forces would wage "a war of attrition," a war "hitting them before us."
His foreign minister, Ali Karti, followed this up with threatening words of his own about the regime’s use of "security cards" against the South: "We have many cards to use against the south, and the southern government has consumed all its cards. We are yet to use any of the security cards and it is high time that the[Khartoum] government considers this option." And Sudan Vision, part of Khartoum’s media propaganda system, quotes Karti as saying that the next step the regime should take is "preparing for so-called ‘plan B,’ which exposes to all African and neighboring leaders who is behind South Sudan. ‘We will not stay with arms folded towards what the government of the South is doing.’
As the Khartoum regime demonstrated in Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, it can easily create a factitious casus belli. Here the evident occasion for war will be the South’s "economic warfare" against northern Sudan, its refusal to submit to the preposterous oil revenue terms Khartoum proposes. The charge of "economic warfare" is a savage irony, given the regime’s yearlong effort to destabilize South Sudan by refusing to allow many northern goods to pass into the South, including food. Even more aggressively, Khartoum has continued to arm and support various renegade militia groups operating in the South, particularly in Unity and Upper Nile states. The Small Arms Survey (Geneva) provides detailed analyses of weapons seized from these militia forces by the army of South Sudan; collectively, these analyses make inescapable the conclusion that Khartoum is waging a widespread war in the South by proxy right now.
With unforgiveable belatedness, the international community is only now awakening to the threat of war and the immensity of the humanitarian crisis in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Khartoum’s violence, including some 110,000 Dinka Ngok who were forced to flee their native lands in Abyei. Although malnutrition is already threatening civilians in large numbers, there is no humanitarian plan in place, nor any option being proposed that will move food quickly to these desperate people. The dying has begun and will continue to accelerate until this changes. Khartoum is clearly attempting to starve into submission the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North of the Nuba; that hundreds of thousands of civilians are "collateral damage" is of no real concern to the regime. The barbaric aerial attacks on civilian sites by SAF aircraft make this all too clear.
The clock long ago began to tick off the lives of Sudanese victims of renewed civil war in the border regions. Have thousands already died? Certainly. Have tens of thousands already died? Probably. Will hundreds of thousands die in the coming weeks and months without urgent international humanitarian intervention? There is no evidence at hand to forestall such a brutal assessment.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.