January 27, 2014 (SSNA) — Just two years after obtaining independence from neighboring Sudan, which marked the end of deadly and long-lasting civil war, South Sudan seems to be heading toward an internal crisis that could turn into civil war since December 15, 2013. South Sudan’s President Salve Kiir stirred the current rebellion by dismissing Riek Machar, the acting Vice-President, in July 2013, after the latter announced his intention to run in the 2015 presidential elections.
While many actors, ranging from China to the United States have direct interests in guaranteeing that the situation in South Sudan is rapidly resolved, it is the country’s northern neighbor, Sudan, which might be most invested in seeing a self-serving solution take place in South Sudan. During secession, Sudan lost most of its oil, while South Sudan obtained 75 percent of the reserves situated on the two countries’ borders.
Left with the needed oil infrastructure and equipment, Sudan was comforted by the fact that its landlocked neighbor depended on its pipelines to transport its oil. However, the relation between Kiir and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has been strained by South Sudan’s unwillingness to pay due oil transit fees and pursuit of alternative pipeline projects, in an effort to bypass its Northern neighbor, thus potentially costing its transit fees. Although officially declaring that it has not and will not support Machar’s rebels in South Sudan fighting against the government, Sudan might be interested in seeing the former VP take over power, as a way to increase Sudan’s influence over its neighbor, due to closer political collaboration between Bashir and Machar in the past and the latter’s stated willingness to cooperation with Sudan on multiple issues.
Immediately after being dismissed in July 2013, Machar announced that he would challenge Kiir’s leadership of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), before the upcoming presidential elections. On December 16, Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup-d’état, which the latter denied. The former VP claims that he was used as a scapegoat for Kiir’s purge of the SPLM of opponents, to avoid reforming the party.
If Machar were to gain presidency, South Sudan’s relationship to Sudan would be different from the one pursued by Kiir since the 2011 independence. Machar has a long history of collaborating with the Sudanese regime. During South Sudan’s cessation war, Machar was a rebel leader in the SPLM lead by John Garang, who was advocating for a united and secular Sudan. Instead, Machar had always promoted self-determination for the south. Machar separated from Garang in 1991, forming his own rebel group, which allegedly received support from Khartoum and started fighting against Garang’s troops. In 1997, Machar signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement, making him Omar Al-Bashir’s assistant.
However, in 2002, he rejoined Garang and the SPLM reached an agreement and after the latter’s death in a helicopter crash in 2005, he rapidly became a key SPLM leader. For his past behavior, Kiir has accused Machar of being an unscrupulous opportunist, ready to cut deal with his enemies only to further his power. Bashir might consider Machar’s changing behavior and their previous political collaboration easier to influence, perhaps even control, than Kiir’s mostly oppositional and often confrontational positions toward his Sudanese counterpart.
Machar visited Sudan on an official visit for the first time after the 2011 cessation in July 2013 and was greeted by both the Sudanese President and VP. With his counterpart, he managed to reach several agreements, aimed at easing the tension between the two countries.
Machar has already stated that he could work with the Sudanese regime to protect the oil fields in the Unity and Upper Nile states, sought-after by Khartoum since the 2011 cessation, due to their abundant oil resources. Ever since South Sudan obtained independence in 2011, Juba has repeatedly accused Khartoum of supplying weapons to insurgents in the Upper Nile state, in order to destabilize the newly created country. Khartoum has repeatedly denied these allegations. In June 2013, Sudanese troops were accused of pushing into South Sudan’s Upper Nile, with Khartoum retaliating that Juba was supporting with arms, petrol, food and spare parts for cars rebels in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
Currently, both the Unity and Upper Nile states have been the battlefield between the South Sudanese and the former VP’s forces in the current battle for power. While Machar has not provided any details about what ‘working’ with Sudan in the two regions might entail, the sheer promise of uncontested influence these crucial oil-rich provinces will likely appeal to Bashir.
Machar’s promise of collaboration might seem particularly appealing to Bashir given acting President Kiir’s tense rapport with Sudan. Firstly, he failed to reach an agreement on oil transit fees, given the fact that South Sudan is dependent on its neighbor’s infrastructure and equipment to transport its oil resources. It kept exporting oil, until, in January 2012, Khartoum seized several million barrels of oil, invoking non-payment of transfer fees. Juba closed all of its wells and only resumed production in April 2013. By September 2013, South Sudan had made almost $1 million dollars in oil revenue, of which it had to pay one quarter to Sudan, for using its pipelines and for compensating the loss of most of its oil revenues with the secession. Apart from disloyalty in paying transit fees, so desperately needed by Sudan, Kirr has also moved to negotiate developing an alternative pipeline route through Kenya connecting it to port Lamu, which would entirely bypass Sudan. This would be a disaster for Sudan, as it would deprive it of the oil transit revenue, but also of foreign investments, from partnering countries such as China, which had almost entirely built its oil infrastructure.
There is one sensitive subject between Kiir and Bashir, on which Machar might also prove unwilling to negotiation: the contested oil-producing border region of Abyei, currently controlled by Sudan, but claimed by South Sudan.
The highly anticipated October 2013 summit between the leaders of the two Sudans did not ensure a final status solution of the border region, with the two leaders only agreeing in a joint communique on general terms for administering and policing Abyei. Immediately following the summit, an unofficial referendum was organized in Abyei, in which the voters, mostly ethnic Dinka, overwhelmingly chose to join South Sudan. The results were not recognized by either Khartoum or Juba and was deemed by the African Union as jeopardizing peace.
Machar has been a supporter of Abyei’s unification with South Sudan. After the referendum, then VP Machar called on both the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments to recognize the will of the people of Abyei, by accepting the outcome of the referendum. In fact, in July 2013, Machar was encouraging people originally from Abyei to return home and prepare for the October referendum. Machar’s previously firm stance on the matter might suggest an unwillingness to collaborate and reach an agreement with the Khartoum regime.
However, for Bashir, this latter point might less significant, compared to the fact that toppling Kiir might mean the end of alternative pipeline routes for South Sudan, as it might deter foreign investors to fund such costly long-term projects in a country unable to demonstrate its political and economic stability. This would only cement South Sudan’s dependency on Sudan, ensuring the latter its precious oil transit fees. So, although Bashir may deny his financial and military support for Machar, he is likely eager to see him replacing the uncooperative Kiir.
Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. She runs a blog about young change-makers and entrepreneurs called Taking on the Giant. Follow her on Twitter: @Raluca_Besliu.