Current Negotiations between Khartoum and Juba in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia): The View from Khartoum

There are good reasons to believe that Khartoum will use these internationally hailed talks as a means of silencing criticism about its continued campaigns of starvation in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile; as a cover for continued military escalation along the North/South border; and as a means of temporizing while the economy of South Sudan moves closer to implosion for lack of oil revenues.

By Eric Reeves


May 29, 2012 (SSNA) — The international reaction to Khartoum’s announced claim to have withdrawn its forces from Abyei has been widely celebratory, and the regime appears to have deliberately handed a tactical victory to the ever-expedient Thabo Mbeki.  Mbeki, who has failed badly in Darfur and Abyei, heads African Union mediation efforts between Juba and Khartoum in negotiations that began today in Addis Ababa, and he is desperate for a diplomatic "triumph."  Khartoum has provided him the illusion of one.

As the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime is well aware, the international community is so eager for negotiations, of any sort, to begin between Juba and Khartoum that it is quite willing to overlook how talks in Addis can be used by Khartoum: as a cover for ongoing military actions by its Sudan Armed Forces (SAF); to forestall the robust action necessary to avoid mass starvation in the Nuba Mountains; and as a means of delay, allowing the economy of South Sudan to move closer to implosion, with a consequent hyper-inflation that will create both civil unrest and a highly dangerous inability to meet the payroll of the immense and bloated Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). At the same time, Khartoum well knows that disaffected SPLA troops are ripe candidates for recruitment into the various renegade militia groups (RMG) that the regime has used to de-stabilize and weaken South Sudan since the self-determination referendum in January 2011.

In short, without committing to anything other than a provisional declaration of intent to withdraw its forces from Abyei (unverified as of May 29), Khartoum has given itself breathing space to pursue a range of deeply threatening actions designed to undermine Juba and starve the civilian base of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N); a primary means of assault on Juba’s legitimacy takes the form military actions along the North/South border—actions that have broad implications in the event of all-out war.  Fighting has been continuous in the Tishwin/Heglig (Panthou) area and elsewhere in northern Unity State, in Upper Nile, and most recently and aggressively in ground and air attacks on the Warguet area of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.  Should Khartoum find it expedient to break off the talks in Addis, then border conflict will be used as pretext, with Juba inevitably blamed for the start of hostilities, despite repeated findings by UN investigators that Khartoum is the party that has initiated hostilities and has been guilty of continuous indiscriminate aerial attacks on civilians.  Khartoum’s aggression was especially notable in the March and April fighting in the Tishwin/Heglig (Panthou) border area that is claimed by both Juba and Khartoum.

Finally, we should understand that Khartoum’s insistence on placing "security" issues be at the top of the agenda is really an attempt to re-define what is occurring in South Kordofan.  The regime would have interlocutors accept that the rebellion concentrated in the Nuba Mountains is substantially supported by Juba and is thus a "security" threat that must be dealt with first.  In fact, the people of the Nuba Mountains face mass starvation as Khartoum continues to refuse all access to international humanitarian relief efforts.  This refusal is part of a military strategy of extermination.  If Khartoum successfully re-defines present realities in South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, as "security" threats to the regime’s power, and on this basis continues to deny all humanitarian relief, hundreds of thousands of people will die following next fall’s now doomed harvest.


Khartoum’s continuing military presence in an area it seized by force a year ago has violated several agreements made by the regime as well as the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2046 (May 2, 2012).  Despite the regime’s commitment to withdraw its forces from Abyei, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical, most conspicuously the trail of previously broken agreements concerning Abyei, including a denial that the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on Abyei’s borders (July 2009) was truly "final and binding," and the deliberate aborting of the self-determination referendum promised to the "residents" of Abyei by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA, January 2005).  Additional bad faith is evident in the refusal of Khartoum to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the UN peacekeeping mission in Abyei (the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei, UNISFA).  Khartoum also ensured that the Ethiopian brigade that constitutes UNISFA has no human rights mandate.

Although Khartoum is already responsible for the deployment of three very large and expensive UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan (UNISFA, UNAMID in Darfur, and UNMISS, the successor mission to UNMIS, in South Sudan), the regime’s primary ambition is not to facilitate but to impede, obstruct, and harass these missions at every opportunity—to make them less effective and more costly.  In the case of UNISFA, Khartoum’s calculation is almost certainly that since it has publicly committed to withdraw SAF forces from Abyei, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations—looking for ways to cut back on costly missions—will use this as an excuse to withdraw UNISFA as soon as possible.  But if Khartoum simply withdraws to the areas from which it launched its final assault on Abyei, it will continue to exert de facto military control over the region—and on the departure of UNISFA will quickly and easily find the means to engineer a re-assertion of full military control.

Indeed, UN DPKO is certainly aware that the presence of the Ethiopian force has done little to re-assure the more than 110,000 Dinka Ngok who fled their lands in Abyei last May as Khartoum invaded.  More than 100,000 of those displaced from the region remain in camps and temporary settlements in South Sudan.  These displaced persons live typically in very poor conditions and add considerably to the enormous strain on humanitarian capacity in South Sudan, which confronts a looming food crisis that will affect half the population of the South in the coming year.

In Addis, Khartoum will make no concessions over Abyei unless on extremely favorable terms—terms that Juba will find unacceptable.  Khartoum’s view of the final status of Abyei has long been perfectly clear.  Since the SAF military seizure of the region, various regime officials have continuously declared that Abyei "is northern Sudanese land" and has always been part of the North; this will remain Khartoum’s defining negotiating posture.

South Kordofan and Blue Nile

Negotiations in Addis seem certain to deflect attention and concern away from these two terribly ravaged regions of northern Sudan, each with its own strong cultural, ethnic, political, and military connections to the South during the civil war (1983 – 2005).  This comes even as humanitarian conditions are deteriorating very rapidly, with highly alarming statistics on malnutrition, especially among children under five.  Many are already dying for lack of food and the diseases consequent upon acute malnutrition.  

In Yida camp in Unity State newly arriving children from the Nuba Mountains have a Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) rate of five percent. Young children experiencing SAM will die quickly without therapeutic feeding; and while this is available in Yida, those arriving are our best and grimmest indicators of malnutrition rates among the much greater displaced and severely distressed populations that remain within the Nuba Mountains, perhaps half a million people.  Moreover, the numbers of displaced persons fleeing to South Sudan has increased dramatically in recent weeks.

Unless the international community settles on an urgent and robust plan to provide food aid, widespread starvation will begin very soon—as Khartoum well knows.  Having taken a military beating in many areas of the Nuba, Khartoum’s SAF has again settled on a grim strategy of waiting for starvation to do what it cannot accomplish militarily.  This strategy has in fact been evident for almost a year, and the failure to anticipate humanitarian needs on the scale that we now see—needs that are dramatically increasing—is an unsurpassably disgraceful act of omission on the part of the UN and the broader international community.

UN Security Council Resolution 2046 "strongly urges" Khartoum to accept a plan for humanitarian access in all parts of the Nuba—specifically, the plan jointly presented to the SPLA-N and the NIF/NCP regime in early February 2012 by the African Union, the UN, and the Arab League.  The SPLA-N signed on February 9; Khartoum gives no sign of doing more than continuing to "study" the plan. For its part the AU has done nothing of significance to pressure Khartoum to reverse its brutally destructive course of action.

The rainy season has begun in this part of Sudan, and the logistics of moving food, medicine, and water purification supplies have now become exponentially more difficult.  So far there are no indications that negotiations in Addis will address, let alone resolve, the humanitarian crisis in South Kordofan and among the refugees in South Sudan.  The same is true for the equally distressed, yet even less reported, civilian populations of Blue Nile, where Khartoum has for the last nine months used the same tactics to destroy agricultural production and displace civilians by means of continuous, indiscriminate aerial bombardment.  

It is currently the planting season for both South Kordofan and Blue Nile, key sorghum-producing states in northern Sudan; it appears almost certain that there will be no successful planting or tending of crops in the coming months and thus no fall harvest.  Present pockets of starvation will become full-scale famine at some point in the interim.

A war of attrition against the economy of South Sudan

Khartoum has now clearly calculated that the economy of South Sudan is deteriorating more rapidly and unsustainably than the economy of Sudan itself.  From the standpoint of quantitative measures, this is not an easy call to assess—and there are reliable reports of senior regime officials and military officers moving assets to the Arab Emirates in anticipation of regime change.  The northern economy suffers from accelerating inflation of approximately 30 percent; a massive loss of oil revenues and equally large budget gaps; "Arab Spring"-like unemployment and demographics; the painful loss to consumers of subsidies for petrol and sugar (the latter is a major source of calories for many in northern Sudan); extremely limited foreign currency reserves (which is badly hurting import businesses); an overall economic contraction of more than five percent this year; and a gargantuan external debt—$38 billion, which the regime cannot service, let alone repay.

But the economy of South Sudan is now feeling the full effects of an almost total loss of government revenues with the shutdown of oil production.  Unless Juba very quickly produces a clear strategy for oil export—with credible construction plans, secure financing, and a practicable completion date—it will be unable to borrow against anticipated oil revenues.  Such borrowing is in any event extremely expensive, and requires the closest scrutiny and oversight; but Juba simply has no choice, other than to resume shipments to the north.  If no progress is made in the immediate near term, an uncontrollable hyper-inflation will set in, with immensely destructive and dangerous consequences.

Civil unrest will follow from the discovery that all monetary assets have become worthless. Unemployment will accelerate, in part because foreign and import businesses will have no domestic currency with which to conduct transactions.  Most ominously, Juba will be unable to pay SPLA troops with a credible currency, and this will provoke large-scale desertion and defection.  Many men with arms will certainly be lured by Khartoum’s ample financial support—including weapons, ammunition, and supplies—to the renegade militia groups operating so destructively in Jonglei, Upper Nile, as well as in states to the west.

Khartoum has sealed the North/South border to trade, including food and petrol, with the clear goal of adding to the inflation that is now accelerating especially rapidly in the more northerly regions, and thus exacerbating humanitarian challenges.  The border is "hardening" even as a "soft" border is in the economic interest of both Sudan and South Sudan.  Khartoum is also ensuring that Southerners living in the north return to the South in the most disruptive and abusive fashion possible, even as the harassment and mistreatment of "Southerners" who choose to remain in the north grows steadily.

Military actions

Although continually reported by the SPLA/M, aerial and ground attacks are too often not investigated by UNMISS and even when attacks are confirmed—and SPLA/M reports have proved consistently reliable, if not entirely so—the UN has clearly made a political decision not to publicize most of these confirmations.  The effect of the blackout of military news is to convince Khartoum that it will pay no price for its continuing attacks, and to provide an additional disincentive for diplomatic engagement.

The relentless aerial attacks on South Sudan that began in November 2010 should have long ago prompted vigorous condemnation, with consequences specified for all further attacks. Instead, Khartoum enjoys almost complete impunity (it can easily live with the sorts of pro forma condemnations that have become the norm), and acts accordingly.  Most recently Antonov bombers have been spotted flying over Juba—an implicit, but powerful threat—as well as flying reconnaissance missions over Unity State and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.  Reliable SPLA sources report that aerial bombardment began in the Warguet area of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal on May 21, and that beginning on May 26, there has been serious ground fighting between SAF and SPLA forces.

Again, Khartoum remains convinced that by agreeing to "negotiate" in Addis and committing to withdraw militarily from Abyei, the international community will not push for further action, this despite the "decision" by the UN Security Council (again in Resolution 2046) that both Juba and Khartoum must "cease all hostilities, including aerial bombardment, with the parties formally conveying their commitment in this respect to the African Union Commission and President of the Security Council not later than 48 hours from adoption of this resolution."  This cease-fire never truly began, even as Juba alone complied within the stipulated 48-hour time-frame and has continued to show remarkable military restraint in the face of unrelenting provocations on the ground and in the air.

The regime’s evident belief is that do long as it is "negotiating," it will be immune from pressure concerning this and the various other terms of Resolution 2046 (which have Chapter 7 authority).  So far the calculation seems all too prescient.


The NIF/NCP regime has as its most reliable diplomatic ally international willingness to indulge a shameless and cowardly "moral equivalence" between Khartoum and Juba.  What is continually overlooked in this factitious "even-handedness" is that Khartoum sees "moral equivalence" as a victory; for it knows as well as anyone who looks honestly that the equities of the two parties—diplomatic, political, and moral—are not equivalent.  Juba and Khartoum are not equally responsible for the current crisis or the breakdown of negotiations or the violence that persists along the North/South border.  Khartoum—in Abyei, in South Kordofan, in Blue Nile, in the Tishwin/Heglig (Panthou) area, in Upper Nile, in Warguet and elsewhere in both Northern and Western Bahr el-Ghazal—has been the aggressor.  Khartoum refuses to make a good faith proposal on oil transit fees (the demand for $36/barrel is not negotiation but extortion, and has no counterpart anywhere in the world where cross-border oil transit fees have been negotiated). Khartoum has also long refused to engage in good faith negotiations to settle the contested areas along the January 1, 1956 border.

Negotiating tactics: setting the agenda

Tactically, Khartoum may be expected to persist with its insistence that "security issues" top the negotiating agenda.  Of course, Khartoum has a rather peculiar sense of what constitutes "security": what the regime is really referring to is its own failure to subdue militarily the rebellion in the Nuba Mountains by the SPLA-N.  Khartoum’s expectation is that international pressure can be brought to bear upon Juba to push for the SPLA-N to surrender in both South Kordofan and Blue Nile. 

There are two problems with such a strategy, although if the ambition of Khartoum’s diplomacy is delay, then these are not problems but advantages:

[1]  Juba does not have, nor would it exert if it did, the leverage to compel its former comrades-in-arms to surrender.  Khartoum knows this full well, so to the extent that this is the larger ambition of its "security" agenda, it is clearly a deliberate non-starter.

[2]  There is simply no evidence that Juba is—as Khartoum continually asserts, with far too much international support—providing substantial assistance to the SPLA-N.  The most significant evidence comes from the highly reliable Small Arms Survey (April 2012), but SAS offers only a very brief account—citing just a few unnamed sources—and does not purport to offer an explanation of how large-scale military support of the SPLA-N would be logistically possible.

In any event, we have ample evidence that the SPLA-N in South Kordofan, led by the militarily gifted Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, has seized most of its weapons and ammunition from defeated SAF forces and their militia allies.  Many of the regime’s troops are badly trained and very poorly motivated, even as the Nuba understand that they are fighting for their people and their lands. They are ferociously determined.

What Khartoum doesn’t deny except perfunctorily is that it provides enormous support to a range of renegade militia forces in the South that have no political agenda; these militias operate chiefly as instruments of civilian destruction and as a means to harass and tie down SPLA forces.  The extent of Khartoum’s support has been ably and comprehensively documented by the Small Arms Survey in more than a dozen reports. This is the "security" issue that should be at the top of the agenda.

Negotiating tactics: transit fees for oil extracted in South Sudan

Given the immense disparity between the fees proposed by the two sides—Khartoum wants $36/barrel for use of its pipeline to Port Sudan, and Juba has offered an amount of approximately a dollar per barrel, certainly very close to international norms—the issue does not appear to be susceptible of the give-and-take of true negotiation.  Mediators in Addis should demand that each side propose a final fee structure, and that the two proposals immediately be sent to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, or an equivalent arbitrating body, for urgent consideration and a "final and binding" decision, accepting only one of the two proposals.

[There cannot be an "averaging" of the two final proposals, at least if such proposals are as starkly divergent as is presently the case: an averaging of current proposals would yield a transit fee of about $18/barrel.  This may in fact be what Khartoum is actually looking for in an arbitration decision, but the fee is still extortionate.  The arbitration must be an all-or-nothing decision about each proposal in order to secure good faith efforts from both sides, i.e., a proposal that the party could live with if not prevailing in arbitration.]

If Khartoum refuses, it will reveal that it is not really prepared to negotiate in good faith.  AU negotiators should then act on this fact. The South should immediately decide on a strategy for export southward, and once in place, should use such a strategy to borrow heavily against anticipated oil revenues.  Serious consideration should be given to moving oil by rail to the growing Kenyan port of Lamu. Such borrowing is far from an ideal solution, but the only one now apparent that can forestall economically crippling hyper-inflation.

Negotiating tactics:  the North/South border

Khartoum has a clear interest in stalling North/South border delineation and demarcation.  The has been clear for over two years, and yet the regime has felt very little real pressure to commit to serious negotiations on the issue.  This has been conspicuously true of African Union mediation efforts to date, which have already failed badly on the Abyei file.  But until there has been full delineation of the January 1, 1956 border (the determinative boundary referred to throughout the CPA), and until there has been a subsequent unambiguous demarcation, Khartoum will continue to use border ambiguity as a cover for military aggression, claiming always to be acting in self-defense because "its territory" has been violated.  This was precisely what happened—twice—in the Tishwin/Heglig (Panthou) confrontations of later March and April.

No true disengagement of forces, of the sort called for in Resolution 2046, will be possible until Khartoum accepts and respects fully a clear and well-defined international border between Sudan and South Sudan.

Certain of Khartoum’s border claims, e.g., the Kafia Kingi enclave in Western Bahr el-Ghazal, are transparently untenable; others present greater challenges.  But as the many attacks within the Kafia Kingi enclave over the past year make clear, the issue isn’t really where the border lies, but how much military advantage or cover the regime can extract from present ambiguity. As the example of Kafia Kingi also makes painfully clear, there is a lack of resolve on the part of the AU mediators, even when a given border issue can be readily resolved on the basis of maps from 1956 and from 1960 (at which time the military regime of Ibrahim Aboud arbitrarily moved Kafia Kingi into the north of Sudan).  And in fact, Khartoum accepted Kafia Kingi as belonging to the South in its presentation to the Permanent Court of Arbitration following Juba’s referral of Abyei to the PCA in 2008. (See maps on pp. 8 – 9 and pp. 168 – 169 of The Kafia Kingi Enclave: People, Politics, and history in the north-south boundary zone of western Sudan, Rift Valley Institute, 2010.)

Negotiating tactics: renege on any agreement it may have been expedient to sign

It is Khartoum’s unrebuked penchant for disowning, abrogating or simply ignoring agreements signed that should stand as the central challenge confronting AU mediators.  But Mbeki and company seem shameless in countenancing the regime’s relentless disregard for agreements signed or proposed.  And until this diplomatic acquiescence changes, it is extremely difficult see what can meaningfully come of present negotiations in Addis.  Perhaps there will be an agreement, or even several agreements; they will be utterly meaningless without powerful guarantors and/or robust sanctions for all violations of any agreement.  This is the most fundamental lesson of diplomatic engagement with Khartoum.  But to date the AU has apparently learned nothing from the fates of Abyei (May – June 2011), Darfur (in the wake of peace agreements in 2006 and 2011), eastern Sudan (after the peace agreement in 2006), and various protocols of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including "popular consultations" for South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

On this latter score, we should note that in place of "popular consultations" or legitimate elections for South Kordofan’s governorship, Khartoum simply imposed its choice of Ahmed Haroun for the post in May 2011; Haroun at the time had been indicted four years earlier by the International Criminal Court for 20 counts of crimes against humanity and 22 counts of war crimes in Darfur.  Disgracefully, Jimmy Carter’s "Center" quickly and ineptly ratified the results of what was nothing more than an assertion of Khartoum’s power in South Kordofan; and the African Union Peace and Security Commission uttered not a meaningful word about this "electoral" travesty.  As the Sudan Tribune noted at the time, this set in motion the events that would lead to the all-out military assault in South Kordofan launched by Khartoum less than a month later (June 5, 2011).

Khartoum had fully sized up international response to its repressive and militaristic ways following acceptance of Haroun’s election and the May 20-21, 2011 invasion of Abyei.  It saw clearly that the African Union, now in charge of negotiations in Addis, was willing to accommodate the most vicious of regime-preserving actions (given the pressures coming from within the senior military ranks).  Such expediency, and the evident self-interest of more than a few tyrannical African regimes, convinces Khartoum that it has nothing to fear in the Addis negotiations; and nothing could be more threatening to the prospects for a just and peaceful settlement.

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.

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