In the Shadow of South Sudan’s Catastrophe, Khartoum’s Actions Are Escaping Scrutiny

By Eric Reeves

February 23, 2014 (SSNA) — The various crises in (northern) Sudan have recently largely escaped notice as news attention is relentlessly focused on the worsening crisis in South Sudan.  The accelerating violence—increasingly ethnically inflected—has become an immense engine of displacement.  The humanitarian needs generated by what will soon be more than 1 million internally displaced persons are staggering.  And the political crisis in Juba that precipitated the violence shows no sign of resolution in the near term.  Fighting in Unity, Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Central Equatoria (Juba) has been most intense and most deeply disturbing, as countless dispatches and sources on the ground continue to reveal.  But there are also reports of violence in other of the ten states of South Sudan (e.g., Warrap), and as fighting continues it becomes increasingly likely that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) "In Opposition" will begin to fragment; the SPLA forces that have remained loyal to the government in Juba may also fragment.  Old divisions overcome during the days of the long civil war with Khartoum may soon re-open, making humanitarian access more difficult and unpredictable; if divisions become numerous enough, command and control will be almost impossible, paralyzing air transport of humanitarian supplies—and all this occurs only a couple of months before the rainy season begins to make overland transport impossible in many areas.

This is an immense and complex news story, often reported in sensationalistic terms, but with some excellent journalists working hard to convey the story with accuracy (Hannah McNeish, Mading Ngor, Nicholas Kulish).  Toby Lanzer, who heads up UN humanitarian operations and coordinates the activities of the UN with nongovernmental humanitarian organizations (NGOs), has so far performed admirably and with an appropriate urgency and unbounded energy.  He has also provided a wealth of information via Twitter.

But realities in the rest of greater Sudan, including the ghastly realities of slow starvation and relentless aerial bombardment of civilian targets in the Nuba Mountains, the comparable (if even less reported) genocidal reprise in Blue Nile, the terrible conditions of civilians in eastern Sudan—and Darfur, whose agony extends to eastern Chad, where some 330,000 Darfuri refugees languish amid deteriorating conditions and without any prospect of safe return to Darfur.

Khartoum is caught, however, between the advantages it accrues with international news and diplomatic focus on South Sudan on the one hand, and the reality that this fighting, which intensifies steadily in the two major oil regions (Unity and Upper Nile states), threatens a very significant loss of oil revenues.  The Unity fields have already ceased production; the fields in Upper Nile appear to be in the process of shutting down.  There are contradictory reports about whether Juba has ordered the shutdown of oil production, but if expatriate engineers and technical personnel are withdrawn—as a number of reports suggest—a shutdown is only a matter of time.  And since shutting down oil production is a complex and relatively time-consuming process, it is likely that Juba will not be in a position to delay a decision on the matter.

The Impending Economic Implosion in Sudan

So what are the effects on Khartoum?  The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime is facing enormous pressure from China, which has invested some US$8 billion in oil infrastructure and development alone, mainly through China National Petroleum Corporation (which effectively trades as "PetroChina" on the New York Stock Exchange).  Both China as a whole, which imports the majority of Sudanese crude, and CNPC officials, are aghast at the prospect of an indefinite shutdown in oil production, and have made their dismay forcefully known to officials in Khartoum. 

Even more consequentially, the loss of oil revenues from the South puts a tremendous, perhaps crippling squeeze on the regime’s ability to generate foreign exchange.  This has long been an acute problem, but one that may soon overwhelm an already imploding economy.  Wracked by extremely high inflation (best estimates of real inflation are 70 – 80 percent), a currency in free-fall, high unemployment and underemployment (especially among those in their 20s and 30s), hugely expensive wars in Darfur as well as South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and widespread perception of the corruption that has long defined the regime, the economy is a complete shambles.  It is also severely affected by overwhelming external debt, now running to over US$46 billion, the vast majority accrued under the current regime during its almost 25 years in power; this is debt the regime cannot service, let alone repay.  An inevitable budget crisis led to the lifting of fuel and other subsidies this past fall, and these in turn sparked the September/October 2013 uprising; so fearful of the uprising were the security and military officials who now do much to define regime policies, that immediate "shoot to kill" orders were given to suppress demonstrations (see Amnesty International, September 26, 2013).

But the most proximate cause of the economic meltdown in Sudan is a lack of foreign exchange (Forex) with which to buy a wide range of goods and services from abroad, many of critical importance.  This has crippled many sectors of the economy dependent upon foreign parts, supplies, and technical expertise; the shortage has appeared most conspicuously in recent weeks in the form of acute bread shortages and bread lines in Khartoum and elsewhere.  Despite the disingenuous explanations offered—amounting to claims of mere "technical" or "bureaucratic" glitch—the real cause is clear: Khartoum does not have sufficient Forex with which to buy even essential agricultural products in adequate quantities, including the wheat that is ground into flour to make bread, a staple in the diet of many Sudanese.  The regime is forced to purchase almost US$1 billion worth of wheat annually.  Given the amount of arable land in Sudan, these imports are a measure of the gross mismanagement of the agricultural sector in Sudan over many years.

This lack of Forex—the IMF estimated that Sudan’s holdings would be entirely exhausted by the end of 2013—makes the loss of oil revenues that much more potently threatening.  Oil ministers in both Juba and Khartoum felt obliged to insist that the oil is still flowing:

In a press statement, Minister of Petroleum Makkawi Mohamed Awad said his country remains committed to the oil agreement with South Sudan and described reports of production cuts as unfounded. Stephen Dhieu Dau, the counterpart of Makkawi in South Sudan, likewise emphasized the oil fields in the country are "safe," strongly denying reports of the approach of rebels on the oil-producing areas north of Malakal.  (Radio Tamzuj, February 23, 2014)

This military assessment of the security situation in Upper Nile seems more like "whistling in the dark" than an effort to speak honestly about the clear threat posed by the SPLA/IO to the oil fields.  The intensity of the fighting in and around Malakal, the savagery of the assaults on civilians, and the proximity of the oil fields to the north of Malakal (toward with the rebel forces are reportedly moving), all suggest that whatever production continues (one estimate is 160,000 barrels per day, though the figure is already likely lower) has already been reduced significantly.  And it simply cannot continue at all if expatriate technical workers and engineers are withdrawn, as they have asked to be.

A more realistic assessment led Upper Nile Mining and Petroleum Minister Francis Ayul "to tell oil companies to shut down production at the Gumri and Adar oil fields" this past Friday (February 21) (Bloomberg News, February 21, 2014).  And a simple look at the geography of Upper Nile and its ethnic makeup strongly suggest that even short-term operation of the oil fields will be impossible. 

The implications can hardly be overstated.  Last December (2013) Sudanese economist Mohamed Ibrahim Kebej warned that:

The flow of revenues for Sudan may be halted as a result of the armed conflict in South Sudan. According to Kebej, the general budget of Sudan for the year 2014 depends largely on revenues from the flow of South Sudanese oil by pipe line to Port Sudan, where it is shipped. The proceeds amount to $2.2 billion. "The control over the oil fields in Unity state by South Sudanese forces opposing President Salva Kiir may lead to an economic disaster. If the oil pipelines close, the already weak Sudanese economy will deteriorate even more…." (Radio Dabanga, December 22, 2013)

The benefit of having news coverage on the South obscure Khartoum’s ongoing war on civilians in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan is likely to be considerably outweighed by the precipitous loss of yet more oil revenues, which even at reduced levels remain a primary source of export income, and thus hard currency.

What we are not hearing about  

But certainly as a consequence of reporting that focuses so exclusively on South Sudan we hear little of the ongoing and accelerating decline in security and humanitarian conditions in Darfur; we hear virtually nothing—except from Sudanese news sources publishing on-line in the diaspora—about the relentless targeting of civilians, villages, and agricultural production by Khartoum’s military aircraft; only one major Western news outlet seemed interested in Khartoum’s most recent form of indiscriminate aerial attack:

Since November, Sudan’s government has also increasingly employed its new Sukhoi-24 fighter jets along with Parachute Bombs in the Nuba Mountains. The first of these bombs was seen November 17th, in a bombing in Tabanya. 2 children were killed and another 5 people injured when the bombs fell in the town market. Another four Parachute Bombs were dropped in Tabanya one month later. Nuba Reports has counted 20 parachute bombs dropped since November. (Nuba Reports, January 15, 2014)

Because the bombs detonate long after the military aircraft have passed overhead, many are lulled into believing that the danger has also passed.  Triggered to explode before reaching the ground, these bombs can have extraordinarily destructive effects.  Civilians remain the primary target of all aerial attacks.

We also hear almost nothing about the continuing total embargo on humanitarian assistance to areas in South Kordofan and Blue Nile controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North, including Khartoum’s refusal to allow a desperately need polio vaccination campaign in these areas.  It is now over two years since the African Union first proposed an agreement on humanitarian access, and still Khartoum stonewalls, bent on a campaign of what can only be called annihilation.  This should certainly be newsworthy, but we hear almost nothing of the futility of African Union mediators who have assumed the vanguard position on this critical issue.

There continues to be almost no reporting, except by Radio Dabanga, on the uncontrolled epidemic of rape of girls and women in Darfur, or the increasingly violent assaults on displaced persons and IDP camps (see my overview account of January 12, 2014).  Humanitarian operations throughout Darfur are increasingly restricted by insecurity and by outright denial of access by the regime’s security forces.  Chronic malnutrition now affects more than 40 percent of children in Darfur (the UN refuses to release data on Global Acute Malnutrition).  Khartoum’s shocking suspension of the International Committee of the Red Cross created barely a news stir, even as it is an extremely dangerous and consequential assault on rigorously neutral humanitarian relief operations, as well as an extremely dangerous precedent. The regime’s suspending of the ICRC seems to have been little more than an extortion scheme, attempting to compel the ICRC to give more money to the Sudanese Red Crescent, which is obviously under the control of the regime.

We hear nothing about the increasingly tyrannical control of newspapers and news reporting in Khartoum, or about such travesties of "justice" as an Eritrean woman—eighteen years of age and three months pregnant—charged with "indecent behavior" after being gang-raped by four Sudanese men.  Nor is much made of the fact that Khartoum refuses to produce a report on the killing of hundreds of demonstrators in the uprising of September/October 2013; many hundreds more were wounded or imprisoned during this period.  Mashood Adebayo Baderin, the UN’s "Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan," expressed his frustration this past week:

Expressing "deep concern" that the Sudanese authorities have not yet issued their reports on last year’s oil subsidy demonstrations, a United Nations human rights expert today urged the Government to release its documents on the protests, which he said, resulted in killings, injuries, arrests and detentions, and destruction of property. "I regret to note that five months after these incidents, the committees set up by the Government have not yet issued their reports or findings on the incidents," Mashood Adebayo Baderin, UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, said as he summed up his recent eight-day mission to the country. "The international community expects a thorough investigation of the human rights violations that occurred during the September demonstrations," he stressed in a press release. "I have highlighted the international concerns about this and urged the Government to accelerate the release of the reports." (UN News Center, February 20, 2014)

It is difficult to imagine a more thankless or less productive task than the one occupying Mr. Baderin—or a greater foolishness than in expecting Khartoum credibly to investigate its own human rights abuses.  For clearly the instructions to "shoot to kill" demonstrators came from senior military or political officials (again, see Amnesty International report, September 26, 2013).  Perhaps some low-ranking police officials will be sacrificed to satisfy the UN; but then the burden is on Baderin and the UN to reject a report that is clearly untenable.

Also buried in news about Sudan is a recent UN report that makes clear the attacks on UNAMID forces in Muhajeriya and Khor Abeche (Darfur) in April 2013 were conducted by militia proxies of the Khartoum regime.  The evidence adduced is in addition to the massive evidence that Khartoum’s militia proxies, typically the Janjaweed, have been involved in a number of other, more deadly attacks on UNAMID forces (see my lengthy survey of the evidence: "Killing UN Peacekeepers: A Ruthless Proclivity of Khartoum’s SAF, Militia Proxies," May 9, 2013).

But since there was little sign of an international reporting commitment to any of these issues before the events of December 15, 2013, perhaps it matters little that Khartoum’s vast criminal record continues to grow, including countless new violations of International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, the Geneva Conventions (1949), and the Protocol Additional to the 1949 Conventions (1977).  The almost complete lack of international support for the International Criminal Court, a response in part to increasing African hostility to the Court, undoubtedly suggests to the Khartoum regime that the impunity it has enjoyed for so many years—for even the most egregious violations of international law—will continue. 

Here we need only think back to the report by a UN human rights team in Kadugli, South Kordofan, during the month of June 2011 to see how immune Khartoum is, even to the most shocking allegations of crimes against humanity and finally genocide.  The report contains 19 pages replete with accounts of summary executions, large-scale abductions, sexual assaults, torture, and mass graves, with the Nuba population the inevitable target. There is very substantial corroborating evidence from a variety of sources, including eyewitnesses, supporting all the claims of the report.   The UN accounts also comport with the remarkable satellite imagery of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which provides overwhelming evidence of freshly dug, very large mass graves in various locations in and around Kadugli.  

In its report, the UN team began by asserting:

The reports calls for corrective action to mitigate harm, hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations, address the plight of victims, and embark on a negotiated political settlement between the Government of Sudan and the Nuban people. The report further recommends that an independent and comprehensive investigation be conducted, into violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws in Southern Kordofan with the view to bringing those who bear the greatest responsibility to justice, including referral as appropriate to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The report concluded:

§74. The attacks on UNMIS, its staff and assets are so egregious that condemnation is insufficient. The conduct of the SAF, the PDF, the Central Reserve Police Force, and the Government Police, singularly and collectively, has frustrated and weakened the capacity of the UNMIS to implement in Southern Kordofan a mandate given to it by the UN Security Council. The conduct has also resulted in loss of life and injury of UN staff. The international community must hold the Government of Sudan accountable for its conduct and insist that it arrests and bring to justice those responsible.

§75. In view of the above, the UNMIS Human Rights strongly recommends

§75.1 That the UN Security Council mandates the establishment of a commission of inquiry or other appropriate investigative authority, including the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the violence in Southern Kordofan and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws and to identify the perpetrators or those who bear the greatest responsibility, with the view to bringing them to justice.

Of course no "commission of inquiry" was ever formed, nor were there ever plans for such.  The report has been silently buried, even as the ambitions reflected in the violence rampant throughout Kadugli during June 2011 continue in the form of assaults on the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile.  There have been no referrals to the International Criminal Court.  Those responsible for the ethnically-targeted destruction of many thousands of Nuba civilians in this month continue to enjoy complete impunity.  Among them is Ahmed Haroun—governor of South Kordofan at the time, and already indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Khartoum’s Choice

If we return to the question of the crisis forced upon Khartoum by the loss of oil revenues from production in South Sudan, there are some ominous possibilities to consider.  This is especially true given the encouragement Khartoum received in the past following its essentially unrebuked military takeover of the Abyei region in May 2011; the offensive against SPLA barracks at Tishwin (Unity State) in March/April 2012 (Juba, responding vigorously to the attack, was nonetheless blamed for the incident in unusually vehement terms by the international community, including the UN, the U.S., and the EU); and the continuing bombing and pin-prick ground attacks inside the sovereign territory of South Sudan that seem of no concern to either the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) or the peacekeeping mission in Abyei (UNISFA, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei, first authorized almost three years ago).  Perhaps most notably, Khartoum has long refused to work toward the delineation and demarcation of the North/South Border, even as there are a number of contested areas of considerable political significance and with immense potential for minerals, timber, and other natural resources, including arable and pasturable land.  The lack of a clear border creates a dangerously unstable situation.

Having worked with titular rebel leader Riek Machar before, and found him someone they can work with, the men in Khartoum may decide that the oil-producing areas in Unity State and Upper Nile are much more likely to remain under the control of rebel forces, if they are controlled at all (here it must be noted that Machar’s control of the SPLA "In Opposition" is continually overstated in news reporting; it is doubtful he now controls militarily or politically even half of those "In Opposition").  At present, rebel forces seem to be receiving sufficient supplies to seize and maintain control of key parts of Unity and Upper Nile states, which is—for many of those fighting—their native region.

Machar early on made clear his ambitions with respect to the oil regions, ambitions that could hardly be realized without support in one form or another from Khartoum:

South Sudan’s former vice-president, Riek Machar, says forces under his command will divert oil revenues accrued from the country’s oil wells, days after his troops seized control of much of the new nation’s oilfields. In an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune on Monday, Machar revealed a plan to halt oil revenue remittances to Juba. He said no money would go to the government in Juba, explaining that his group plans to divert oil revenues and deal directly with Sudan in implementing the September 2012 cooperation agreements, as they are in control of the concerned states.  (Sudan Tribune [London], December 23, 2013)

Machar vastly overstated his abilities here, as well as his "command" authority.  But there can be little doubt that dislodging the rebels and maintaining security in the oil regions will be a daunting task, especially if they split into guerilla units.  The military future is exceedingly difficult to predict, but in the absence of a cease-fire that takes hold firmly, fighting appears likely to continue indefinitely, without a final outcome.

Faced with the choice of losing all oil revenues from South Sudan reserves, entailing catastrophic economic consequences, or making common military cause with the rebels, desperation may drive the regime to the military option, which would of course abrogate definitively the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), bring fierce condemnation from African countries, especially those of IGAD—and may even be a bridge too far for other elements of the international community.  For gambling on the rebels and the ability of the SAF and its militia allies to guard oil production on Southern territory is not only a very high-stakes bet, but would be an act of war by virtue of crossing an international boundary, obliging immediate referral to the Security Council.

But here is where’s China faces its own decision: will it support a Security Council resolution demanding an end to support for the rebels, and withdrawal of all SAF military forces from South Sudan, even if it became evident that they might be able to stabilize the region sufficiently for oil production to resume?  Voting for such a demand ensures that for the foreseeable future oil production will remain at a halt.  On the other hand, might China veto such a resolution in order to protect its oil interests, if it calculates they are best protected by Khartoum and the rebels rather than Juba?  (Such a veto would be defended as "helping to provide regional security and protecting civilians in the oil regions.")  China has never been comfortable dealing with both Juba and Khartoum, and there are strong signs that Beijing is losing patience with its investment in South Sudan (Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2014).  But the challenges of maintaining any sort of productive relationship with Juba will vanish if China does not help to ensure that any SAF military advance into Unity or Upper Nile states is halted before it begins or that immediate withdrawal is demanded by the Security Council, with punishing consequences for non-compliance.

This may well end up being the real story of South Sudan in 2014.

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012;

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