By Eric Reeves
July 24, 2012 (SSNA) — Associated Press reports today (July 24, 2012) that the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has confirmed at aerial attack by Khartoum’s military aircraft on the sovereign territory of South Sudan (near Rumaker, Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state); this attack occurs as negotiations between Khartoum and Juba are presently underway in Addis Ababa to resolve outstanding bilateral issues.
"Six bombs that Sudan maintains were aimed at rebels in its own territory instead landed across the border inside South Sudan, according to a United Nations report. UN observers who visited the site found six bomb craters 1.16 kilometers (.72 miles) inside South Sudan’s territory, according to the internal report obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday. South Sudan officials told the UN team that a man who was wounded in the bombing later died. The timing of the incident is crucial because South Sudan and Sudan are currently meeting in Ethiopia to negotiate outstanding issues from their peaceful split last year. The UN Security Council says the issues—including an agreement on the full demarcation of a border and how to share oil revenues—must be resolved by August 2.
"After the bombing allegations, the African Union—which is overseeing the Sudan-South Sudan negotiations—said it would investigate. The AU reported that Sudan said its forces attacked a group of Darfur rebels ‘within the territory of Sudan.’ The UN team said the six bombs created small craters where they came down in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state early Friday. ‘The craters are almost in one line, possibly indicating a bombing run by an aircraft. Bomb fragments and debris was visible in and around the craters. The smell of "gunpowder" was also evident,’ the report said. South Sudan has said the Sudanese military dropped the bombs from Antonov planes. The UN report also said that an Antonov military aircraft was spotted flying over the South Sudan city of Bentiu, in Unity State, on Saturday. South Sudan does not have Antonov planes."
Since the UN Security Council imposed an August 2 deadline for the completion of these negotiations, the timing of the bombing attack requires explanation, for the authority of the confirmation can’t be doubted in this case. Ordinarily, the African Union would expediently declare that it was "investigating," but then simply accept at face value Khartoum’s denial. For its part, the UN would not make public its findings, leaving the situation unresolved and the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) convinced that the international community simply doesn’t want to hear about such attacks, even when there are civilian casualties. But again, this attack has been explicitly confirmed by UN investigators:
"Six bombs that Sudan maintains were aimed at rebels in its own territory instead landed across the border inside South Sudan, according to a United Nations report. UN observers who visited the site found six bomb craters 1.16 kilometers (.72 miles) inside South Sudan’s territory, according to the internal report obtained by The Associated Press.
"The UN team said the six bombs created small craters where they came down in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state early Friday. ‘The craters are almost in one line, possibly indicating a bombing run by an aircraft. Bomb fragments and debris was visible in and around the craters. The smell of "gunpowder" was also evident,’ the report said."
Why would Khartoum engage in such a provocative attack, and justify it after the fact with the ludicrous claim that the attack was directed at the Justice and Equality Rebel (JEM) movement? The attack—according to the SPLA—occurred around 3am in the morning July 20, when darkness would have been complete. Antonovs have no militarily purposeful precision, even in daylight: they are retrofitted Russian cargo planes from which shrapnel-laden barrel bombs are simply rolled out the back cargo bay. An attack in complete darkness by an Antonov is the very embodiment of "indiscriminate."
So, who ordered this attack?
This was not done on the initiative of a regional military officer but on the basis of an order from Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) headquarters in Khartoum. And these senior officers would certainly have known both that the UN Security Council deadline was approaching and that such an attack would be provocative in the extreme. Unsurprisingly, it led the GOSS delegation to break off direct talks with the Khartoum regime leadership, even as it was making a generous offer on the issue of oil revenues. This included forgiving the debt accrued by Khartoum through the withholding or sequestering of oil revenues ($815 million since independence in July 2011); $3.2 billion in assistance to Khartoum to close the budget gap created by the regime’s loss of oil income; and exceedingly generous transit fees: $9.10 per barrel for the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company pipeline (from what was formerly Western Upper Nile) and $7.26 per barrel for the Petrodar pipeline from Upper Nile. In less than a day, Khartoum had rejected the deal.
With such an eminently reasonable, indeed generous deal about to be tabled, why would Khartoum—desperate for resumed oil revenues—choose to bomb South Sudan and to reject Juba’s offer almost immediately? How can the regime insist that "security issues" are paramount even as it violates the security of South Sudan on a regular basis both with aerial attacks and grounds attacks, the former going back to November 2010? In the immediate wake of the attack of July 20, the answer was provided in the form of another question by South Sudan’s Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin: "’Maybe certain extremists do not want the talks,’ said Marial. ‘Why would they continue bombing?’" (Associated Press [Juba], July 21, 2012). SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer connected the bombing attack to a desire to abort the direct talks between Juba and Khartoum:
"’There was bombing yesterday morning at a place called Rumaker,’ in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan’s military spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP earlier, adding that ‘this might have implications because maybe that is the intention of Sudan to bomb us and to stop talking.’" (Agence France-Presse [Addis], July 21, 2012)
And who are the "extremists" that Marial and Aguer are referring to? Evidence has mounted steadily for over a year that senior military officials within the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party have become increasingly influential, indeed decisive in the key decisions about war and peace. Last May, shortly before the regime’s military seizure of Abyei, two generals demanded of President Omar al-Bashir that they be given this decision-making power: Major General Mahjoub Abdallah Sharfi—head of Military Intelligence since 2008—and Lt. Gen. Ismat Abdel Rahman al-Zain, implicated in Darfur atrocity crimes because of his role as SAF director of operations in Khartoum (he is identified in the "confidential Annex" to a report by UN panel of Experts on Darfur, leaked in February 2006). A third member of the military with outsize influence in regime decisions is Major General Bakri Salih—former Defense Minister, and now senior minister for presidential affairs. These are the men who are making the key decisions, and moving Sudan and South Sudan closer to war.
The most conspicuous evidence of this shift in political power became clear a year ago: on June 28, 2011 senior NIF/NCP political figure and presidential assistant Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e signed a "framework agreement" with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N), committing the two sides to negotiate outstanding political issues (that were to have been settled in the aborted "popular consultations" for Blue Nile and South Kordofan) and a cease-fire. Three days later, al-Bashir—just back from a state visit to China—announced a precipitous reversal of Khartoum’s commitment to the "agreement." There would be no negotiations with the SPLA/M-N, no halt to fighting, and no humanitarian access to civilians in rebel-held parts of South Kordofan (Khartoum at this point had not yet begun its military seizure of Blue Nile):
"Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said the army would continue its campaign in the flashpoint of South Kordofan, state news agency SUNA said on Friday [July 1, 2011], dashing hope of a cease-fire ahead of southern secession. In his first comments since returning from a visit to China, Bashir seemed to contradict comments by a northern official this week that north and south had agreed ‘in principle’ on a cease-fire in the northern oil state." (Reuters [Khartoum], July 2, 2012)
Ominously, al-Bashir spoke of the SAF continuing a "cleansing" operation, according to the state run Sudan News Agency (SUNA):
"'[Al-Bashir] directed the armed forces to continue their military operations in South Kordofan until a cleansing of the region is over,’ SUNA quoted Bashir as telling worshippers during Friday prayers.” (emphasis added)
As the International Crisis Group reported:
"[H]ardliners in Khartoum—including SAF generals—immediately rejected a 28 June framework agreement, which includes a political and a security agreement for Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, facilitated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and signed by Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, Co-deputy NCP chairman and a presidential adviser."
These conspicuous truths seem not to be of interest to African Union mediators or UN officials: they are simply too inconvenient to be frankly acknowledged. Instead, there is a default decision to blame both parties, to indulge yet again in a destructive "moral equivalence," whatever the circumstances or evidence demonstrating a preponderance of culpability.
Indeed, the African Union is clearly minimizing the significance of the bombing, despite its place in a pattern of disturbing trends in the decisions made by Khartoum. It said—before the Associated Press report—that is would "investigate" the bombing, but that negotiations would continue. Ordinarily the phrase "will investigate" coming from the AU with respect to bombing in Sudan or South Sudan is meaningless; but that apparent commitment now must confront the reality of UN confirmation of the aerial attack, and its clearly indiscriminate nature.
It’s not hard to understand why the Government of South Sudan refuses to accept this diplomatic massaging and disingenuousness, and has made its point by breaking off direct negotiations with the Khartoum regime. And until the AU—as well as the UN and other international actors of consequence—take seriously the implications of an attack such as that on Rumaker, it will find that Juba is increasingly doubtful that there is any real balance or fairness on the part of the mediators in Addis.
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.