Panthou war: the reflections of unnecessary war

By Elhag Paul

May 18, 2012 (SSNA) — Knowledge from history of military campaigns tells us that when a country is at war, regardless of the merits, rights or wrongs, nationals must zip up their mouths and keep them tight until the war is over.  It is a call for self discipline, and self restraint in the face of anxiety and emotional pain. Now that the guns have gone quiet and the United Nations Security Council is in the equation, it is time for reflection.

Was this war really necessary? Was it worth sacrificing those who lost their lives on both sides of the conflict? Could those issues not have been sorted without resorting to violence? The answers to the initial 2 questions is definitely a resoundingly ‘big No!’ As for the last question, of course yes, the issues were sortable. The question then is, why did we resort to violence? This is the million dollar question? Unshelling this conundrum can help us in understanding the hidden mindset running GoSS.

Prior to putting flesh to the ‘big No’, it is important to understand the reasons for the conflict. The numerous skirmishes taking place in the border areas since May/June2011 are fuelled by accusations and counter accusations by the two parties (NCP/government of the Sudan and SPLM/Government of South Sudan) about violations of their territories by each other. According to president Kiir, the taking over of Panthou (Heglig) on 26th March and 10th April 2012 by army of South Sudan was something that was forced on RSS. South Sudan had to respond to continuous SAF military violations of its territory to defend itself and its citizens. Without delving into details, this brief explanation suffices for the purpose of this article. This brings us to the questions posed above and the answers given.

The Panthou war was totally unnecessary. GoSS should never have blundered into this war specifically for three reasons. First, chronologically, Khartoum has since 2005 been engaged in acts of provocation against GoSS to abort the referendum. It obstructed in the implementation of the important articles of the CPA starting early on with power sharing, wealth sharing and the census. The allocation of the sovereign ministries was a big problem, transparency over oil revenue was a problem, conducting the census was a problem, demarcating the borders was a problem.  The evidence was clear, Khartoum was itching for troubles mainly to shred the CPA which it did not sign willingly, but was dragged by the international community kicking and screaming. To GoSS’ credit, it behaved honourably and as a result it deprived Khartoum of the fight and destruction it wanted. This yielded the referendum and with it the secession of South Sudan from the Sudan. Had GoSS allowed itself to be provoked by Khartoum in the period 2005 to 2011, for certain South Sudan would not be a sovereign country now.

Just prior to independence of South Sudan (May/June 2011) Khartoum intensified its provocation of South Sudan, it intermittently bombarded the border areas and supported insurgencies against Juba. The UN took note of all these. Again Khartoum might have been looking for a way of scuppering the declaration of South Sudan as an independent country but it found none and so it had to recognise RSS on 9th July 2011. However, only a fortnight after independence, Khartoum began to lodge complaints regularly at the UN Security Council against RSS for violation of its territory. In tandem with this Khartoum embarked on diplomatic offence against the RSS. On one hand it keeps violating and attacking South Sudan territory and on the other it complaints to the UN for being attacked. This is sly politics of deceit. Since independence of South Sudan this is what Khartoum has been doing to draw South Sudan into war. One thing is certain; Khartoum is very uncomfortable with negotiation. It knows that it can not sustain its theocratic position and its intrigues of land theft in a country with diverse ethnicity and numerous faiths through negotiations and this is the reason why it always wants to hide behind wars. Unfortunately Kiir fell for their trick in April and the rest is known to all.

Secondly, experience has shown beyond doubt that Khartoum can be reasonable when it is cornered. The process that led to the CPA demonstrated that when Khartoum is not given any excuses, it will play ball. Otherwise had Khartoum been unreasonable, South Sudan would not have seceded. So, when diplomacy is properly calibrated Khartoum responds positively. Having dealt with the nearly impossible issue of secession through negotiation and agreement, this proves that RSS should take Khartoum seriously by not getting drawn to traps like the Panthou war and provocations such as those spoken about here. What RSS needs to do is to ensure that the ministry of foreign affairs is adequately staffed with capable diplomats who can promote its interest in the international space properly.   There should be clear separation of the Oyee party from the government. For example, the secretary general of the party has no business negotiating on behalf RSS. This should be the remit of the minister of foreign affairs. And lastly, the foreign policy of RSS should be made clear as this would be the basis for government business. Having a clear policy would ensure interference by the Oyee party in government business is kept at arm’s length. Therefore, RSS should not allow itself to be dragged into unnecessary wars. After all, if South Sudan could secede peaceful by being patient in its dealing with Khartoum, it follows that it can equally recover all the border areas by being patient and vigorously pro active in diplomacy.

Thirdly and most importantly, there was no need at all for GoSS to go into a war with Khartoum because the economic situation in the country was dire. President Kiir knew that the government rightly decided to shut down oil production and export through the Sudan for very good reason viz to stop sequestration. With the knowledge that RSS’ economy had become stagnant and the country was going through stagflation, how could the Panthou war be sustained. Is this not stuff of utter lunacy in leadership? Do not get me wrong. I strongly support the oil shut down but I do not support the war. The factors that created the war are a result of poor leadership and governance in Juba. GoSS allowed things to drift to a dangerous point.

It is this point that throws light on the whole Panthou project. It shows clearly that GoSS did not cogitate on it.  Surprisingly, GoSS officials display their ignorance by arguing that they have put the country on austerity measures. What austerity are these people talking about? In the first place GoSS negligently does not provide any services to its citizen. What this means is that it does not spend any money on services. If this be the case what would the cuts be on? The logical answer is that there is nothing to cut. And if there is anything to cut then that must be salaries. The reality is that RSS is in economic stagnation.  Any talk of austerity to appear good on TV programmes only make fools of such people. On the other hand, although the Sudan was also suffering economically, it was in a better position than South Sudan. It deliberately goaded South Sudan into a war to squeeze it financially and discredit it diplomatically. President Kiir fell for the bait and as a result RSS paid dearly.

Therefore for the three reasons above the Panthou war was unnecessary. The second question was whether it was necessary to sacrifice those who lost their lives. Again the answer is no. Both the NCP and the Oyee party have consistently shown that they do not care about the lives of civilians generally and the lives of their service men. Both are reckless groups which do not take their duty of care seriously. In fact they shamelessly abuse the very concept of duty of care by consistently neglecting the lives of their people. What matters to these groups is their group interest only. The interest of the countries means nothing to them. Having undemocratically through the use of guns placed themselves in position of power, they wrap themselves in national flags to ruthlessly pursue their group’s interest.  Hence, corruption is rampant in both countries by members of these groups without any checks and consequences. Critical look at the membership of these two groups brings to your face abusers, criminals, opportunists, looters, corrupters, religious fundamentalists, thieves and you name it. In short, these are houses of undesirables. The decent people amongst them remain with them out of fear, despair and indecisiveness.  

With colourful characters such as these running the Oyee party and feeding their values into it demonstrates why the Oyee party is devoid of guilt and indulges in blatant lies, all elements of a psychopathic organisation. It is time that citizens of South Sudan take seriously the hard fact that the ruling Oyee party is a sick organisation and it should not be relied upon. It will continue to mismanage and drive the country into a totally failed state.  Even Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the Oyee party in his interview with Mr Vincent Makori of Voice of America (VOA) on 10th May 2012 under the title: ‘South Sudan Corruption Discussion’ acknowledges that they suffer from “infantile disorders”.   With such honest admission from the ruling party, why should they be allowed to continue to lead a nation of 9 million people? Are the people of South Sudan not taking a suicidal risk by allowing a psychopathic organisation/political party to lead them? Since when are erratic children allowed to run things in their parents’ house?

It is the lack of concern for human live by NCP and the Oyee party that has led to unnecessary loss of lives in Panthou. Both Khartoum and Juba are aware that in the end, Panthou will revert to South Sudan. GoSS additionally has the advantage of knowing that if Khartoum is intensely engaged it will play by the book. Given this, was there any need to resort to violence? If South Sudan had persevered as it did prior to the referendum and independence to gain its interest, why could same not have been done on Panthou? It was Khartoum that wanted the violence to scupper resolution of the border areas. Khartoum in its strategy of goading South Sudan into war engages in bombarding civilians in South Sudan randomly. It sacrifices South Sudanese civilian lives freely against the Geneva Convention without accountability.  South Sudan should have responded to these continuous provocations by intensifying its diplomatic activities in New York, Washington, London, Brussels, Nairobi and Pretoria rather than responding by military force. After all, president Bashir and his administration in Khartoum are already tainted by the ICC indictment. Diplomatically, South Sudan would have won clean – fair and square and with it the recovery of our border areas including Panthou.

However, the Oyee party has a history of irrational behaviour in relation to military actions. Let us look at a similar behaviour to that of Panthou in 2002. During the IGGAD negotiation in Kenya, South Sudanese were doing well in the negotiation. On 20th July 2002, South Sudan gained the right to self determination in the talks and progress was being made in all the others areas under discussions. It was clear that Khartoum was going to hand over the entire territory of South Sudan to a new de facto government of South Sudan under an agreement.   Rationally, there was no need for a return to violence. After all if the South could be gotten without a bullet why waste human lives. Defying all logic, the SPLA in September of the same year attacked Torit and went on to capture it from Khartoum. The outcome was similar to what happened in Panthou. Khartoum suspended its participation in the talks conditional on a military recovery of Torit. Khartoum then launched a counter operation and recovered Torit after which it returned to the talks victorious. But the important point to be observed here is the utter stupidity of the Oyee party wasting lives of its men on an unnecessary operation of a town that was coming to South Sudan administration. The questions asked then as now are:  was military action necessary? Why was the Oyee party risking the interest of South Sudan by plunging into suicidal actions? There is another dimension to this in relation to the policy of New Sudan, but this is not the place for it in this article. 

As for Khartoum, war provides it with pretexts and allows it to prolong its racist and abusive administration. Khartoum actually enjoys going into military actions because its army is composed largely at the bottom by members of the marginalised African groups. And as far as the rulers are concerned, this fits the maxim: ‘Adrab al abid bel abid’ (Hit the slave with a slave). So long as the Africans kill themselves that is OK for them. So, RSS should not have allowed itself to be sucked into a pointless war where it sacrificed its sons and daughters for nothing. The fight should have been on the table of diplomacy.

So, the history shows that consistently Khartoum’s goading of Juba had a strategic purpose to draw GoSS into a war trap to end the CPA. With this knowledge, GoSS should not have allowed itself to be enticed into the Panthou conflict because Khartoum does not want the border issues finally settled. It is in its favour to keep the status quo to allow it to siphon the 60 thousand barrels a day from Panthou for the foreseeable future. 

Although Khartoum’s aggressions had reached an intolerable point, South Sudan’s army retaliation and capture of Panthou should not have been officially acknowledged by Juba to the world for diplomatic purposes. President Kiir should not have announced the liberation of Panthou. After capturing Panthou South Sudan army should have handed it over to SPLM/A North who would then claim victory over SAF in their fight to overthrow the government in Khartoum. The world may have believed SPLM/A North because they have the capability of such a victory. Remember, Justice and Equality Movement alone attacked Khartoum in 2009 nearly overthrowing the government there. So after having allied with SPLM/A North it would be easy for them to be believed. Under such circumstances GoSS would get away squad free while pursuing its claim of Panthou peacefully without using violence as required by international law.  

Crossing international boundaries whether demarcated or not is a very dangerous business. The international community always does not have sympathy for any country involving itself in such practice. Uganda under Idi Amin entered Tanzania violently in 1978 and the result was a united condemnation from the International community resulting into eviction of Ugandan troops from Tanzania and the overthrow of Amin’s regime itself. Again, Sadam Hussein entered Kuwait in 1990 and the same reaction followed from the international community with the demise of his regime. Unless a country is as strong as Russia (or member of the security council) which entered Georgia and partitioned it, it would be suicide to try such games. There are exceptions such as Kenya’s occupation of southern Somalia. This was made possible by clinical consultation and blessing of the international community against a failed state. In light of this, RSS can be considered extremely lucky to have gotten away with a slap on the wrist by blundering into this political morass of inviolability of international borders.

Attributing the capture of Panthou to SPLM/A north would have caused further disarray in Khartoum and possibly galvanising the opposition over there. Such a strategy would have made it hard for president Bashir to unite and mobilise the Sudanese and the international community against RSS. Conceivably such a strategy could even embolden the Sudanese opposition within that country and further demoralise the SAF with a chance of igniting a popular uprising. With the civil population going to the streets in the capital, that could create a real existential problem for NCP. Unfortunately, president Kiir took the wrong route to claim Panthou. It is possible that Kiir and his strategists if at all there were any, were aware of the consequences of their decisions. By default they handed president Bashir a propaganda tool to unite the people in Sudan and rally the international community against RSS. Thus the Oyee party by their lazy thinking brought the wrath of the international community on RSS. The losses are colossal (see ‘The Panthou Fiasco: President Kiir needs to resign now’ published in South Sudan Nation and South Sudan News Agency).

Having come this far, let us take stock of what has been written in this article. It has been demonstrated that the Panthou war was unnecessary. That the service men and civilians sacrificed in this operation is utter waste of human resource. That president Kiir should not have taken responsibility for the capture of Panthou. That this operation could have been managed differently.    That the border disputes could be resolved peacefully with the right policies and right calibre of diplomats. 

These failures are not the only ones committed by president Kiir and his government. Since assuming power in South Sudan in 2005 under the CPA president Kiir has stumbled from one self constructed catastrophe to another. He and his officials started by presiding over looting of government resources, institutionalising tribalism, neglecting security in the country, rigging election in 2010, watched Jonglei imploding, neglected oil issues and the economy and now leading the country into an unnecessary war ending with pyrrhic victory.   So the evidence shows clearly that president Kiir and his cabinet should not be trusted with the lives of the 9 millions South Sudanese and the country any more.   He has been a disaster and must go to atone the lives wasted in Panthou, Jonglei and the towns of South Sudan. President Kiir must go for South Sudan to heal and rediscover itself.

The truth hurts but it is also liberating

The Author lives in the Republic of South Sudan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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