Where is Heglig?

International confusion and ignorance in answering this question about Sudanese geography has become one of the greatest threats to peace, and the negotiations required for peace to be sustained

By Eric Reeves

April 14, 2012 (SSNA) — The rapid escalation of military violence between Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and South Sudan’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is now sustained in large measure by widespread international confusion about where "Heglig" is. Hasty or disingenuous assignments of "Heglig" to (northern) Sudan have emboldened Khartoum to characterize SPLA military actions as "South Sudan’s blatant invasion of Heglig."  Given Khartoum’s own military seizure of Abyei in May 2011, this seems remarkable (if unsurprising) hypocrisy; but so far it is working at the UN, with the U.S. State Department, with the AU, and among EU members.  This vastly increases the chances of all-out war.  Given the brutally indiscriminate ways in which Khartoum has previously chosen to wage war on the people of the South—as well as of Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan—we should expect huge civilian casualties, massive human displacement, and intolerable assaults on civilians in the North who are "ethnically Southern."

The location of "Heglig" (which Southerners have long referred to as Panthou) has yet to be negotiated vis-à-vis the "1 January 1956 border," the determining point of reference in establishing whether a wide range of locations lie in the South or the North.  Although the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) repeatedly and explicitly stipulates the "1 January 1956 border," the precise location was to have been to be a matter that required extensive research and negotiation by the Technical Boundary Committee (TBC). 

Indeed, some twenty percent of this border remains undelineated, and a much greater percentage remains undemarcated.  The reason is simple: Khartoum has consistently refused to negotiate these areas of the border either within the TBC or through high-level political engagement.  Over more than seven years, it has repeatedly refused to convene or participate in good faith in the TBC, to accept the findings of the Abyei Boundaries Commission stipulated by the Abyei Protocol of the CPA, or to accept the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009).

It is this last decision that appears to have caused the most confusion in shallow international minds.  The PCA (in The Hague) defined Abyei in a way that moved both the Heglig (and Bamboo) oil sites to the east of Abyei’s eastern boundary.  But with respect to Heglig, this is all it did.  It did not place Heglig in northern Sudan or South Sudan; it simply said that Heglig lies to the east of Abyei:

"The eastern boundary of the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905 runs in a straight line along longitude 29° 00′ 00” E, from latitude 10° 10′ 00” N south to the Kordofan – Upper Nile boundary as it was defined on 1 January 1956."

This ruling did nothing to settle where the "1 January 1956 border" actually lies.  It had no mandate to make such a determination, and did not attempt to do so.  This elemental fact has escaped virtually all international actors, in large part because Heglig has been robustly controlled militarily by Khartoum for many years, especially since oil was discovered in the area in the 1970s.

In short, the location of Heglig remains to be negotiated, even as Khartoum refuses to negotiate—and the regime is distinctly less likely to do so now that its pre-emptive geographic claim of the region has been ratified by a series of statements by international actors of consequence.  Given Juba’s determination that Heglig will not be allowed to become a future staging ground for additional assaults on Southern territory, and the strong belief by many Southerners that Heglig is south of the "1 January 1956 boundary," either the geographic status of Heglig is negotiated, or there will be no peace.

The same international actors who have explicitly or implicitly declared that Heglig lies in (northern) Sudan also profess to support the CPA and its implementation. But how does this square with the acquiescence before Khartoum’s seizure of Abyei, in violation of not only the Abyei Protocol of the CPA but the ruling by the PCA?  Nothing has changed in the eleven months since Abyei was seized, except for the deployment of an Ethiopian brigade that operates without a human rights mandate, no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Khartoum.  Most significantly, it cannot provide the security necessary for the return of more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok displaced to the South during the seizure of Abyei, especially given Khartoum’s refusal to withdraw its SAF or militia forces, as it agreed to do on June 20, 2011

And more to the immediate point, how do these international actors square their commitment to CPA implementation even as negotiation of the "1 January 1956 boundary" is a central feature of the Agreement.  The North/South boundary was to have been delineated and demarcated within six months of the signing of the CPA. And yet as the International Crisis Group reported in September 2010, these efforts "had been tied up for far too long in the Technical Border Committee," where Khartoum was engaged in delaying tactics.  It was clear to ICG, and should have been clear to the international community, that this was not a matter that could be resolved without political commitment from Juba and Khartoum to address outstanding border issues.  Juba was willing; Khartoum was not.

Thus the repeated declaration in the CPA that "the January 1, 1956 line between north and south will be inviolate" became meaningless.  Without both delineation and demarcation, this was a motto not a principle—and more conspicuously so following the military seizure of Abyei, given the CPA declaration that, "The parties shall refrain from any form of unilateral revocation or abrogation of the Peace Agreement" (CPA, Machakos Protocol 2.4).  There could be no more conspicuous "abrogation" of the CPA than the May 20-21, 2011 seizure of Abyei.

But this has not prevented a chorus of condemnations of Juba’s "invasion" of (northern) Sudan:

•"The AU notes with alarm, the occupation of the Heglig by the forces of (South Sudan) …."

•The U.S State Department "strongly condemns the military offensive, incursion to Southern Kordofan state, Sudan, by the SPLA today [April 12, 2012]."

•"The move by the South Sudanese armed forces to occupy Heglig in Sudan is completely unacceptable," declared the UK’s Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham.

•The European Union, through EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton asserted that "the move by the South Sudanese armed forces to occupy Heglig is completely unacceptable." 

None of these statements acknowledges what becomes clearer by the day: Juba was responding to a second round of military aggression, launched by the SAF from Heglig.  This aggression is what prompted the SPLA to act.  But until wiser or more informed voices are heard from these important quarters, Khartoum will only grow more emboldened.  And South Sudan, feeling increasingly abandoned, is likely to accelerate military moves that it regards at once as defensive as well as preserving of historical claims to the lands around Heglig. 

Notably, President Salva Kiir has promised that the SPLA is prepared to withdraw from Heglig if a UN force guarantees that it will not again become a launching point for military assaults deeper in Southern territory.  At precisely the moment in which such a UN commitment is most needed, ignorance and expediency seem most likely to prevent that commitment.  All-out war is increasingly inevitable.


See also the wonderfully acute piece by Jacob K. Akol, editor at Gurtong Website: "Heglig? This Tent Does Not Belong To The Camel!"

"It is definitely unfair of the international community to expect Juba to just sit and watch Khartoum carry out daylight robbery of her property without responding."


Eric Reeves is a Sudan researcher and analyst at Smith College, and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (Key Publications/Canada, 2007); he has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.

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