U.S. News & World Report

The Coming War in Sudan

Former Senior Fellow

This past week Salva Kiir, president of the Republic of South Sudan, announced that he had ordered units of the Sudan People's Liberation Army to deploy south of the border between his country and its northern neighbor, the Republic of Sudan, in response to the buildup of military forces north of the same border. While the north-south border area has been militarized for several years, this ominous military buildup by both countries brings them one step closer to war. A year ago the Southern government stopped all oil production (70 percent of historic Sudan's known oil reserves are in the South) when it discovered the Khartoum government was diverting oil, selling it on the spot market, and taking all of the revenue.

International diplomats have thrown up their hands in disgust as all efforts at mediation between the two sides to avoid war have failed. Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, and the chief diplomat for the African Union wrote to the two presidents&mdash—Kiir and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan&mdash—and told them to sort their differences before they call him in again to mediate the talks. U.S. policy on Sudan may be in transition with the appointment of Secretary of State John Kerry who as a U.S. senator took a rhetorically tougher line on Sudan than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who sought to engage rather than confront Bashir's Islamist government in Khartoum. The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, a very able U.S. career diplomat named Princeton Lyman, announced his resignation just as Secretary Clinton transitioned out of office. U.S. leadership is most needed to avoid war right now and in no position to provide it. And yet should the two countries return to war, the crisis will divert the U.S. government's attention from other pressing problem.  A war would be a conventional one and likely will engulf neighboring countries.

The countries' disputes center on four issues: demarcation of the oil and mineral rich disputed border between the two countries, the price the South will pay the north to move southern oil through the northern pipeline to Port Sudan for shipment, surreptitious support by both governments of rebellious groups in each other's territories, and final implementation of provisions of the two countries' peace agreement to resolve peacefully the governance of Blue Nile Province, the Nuba Mountains, and the Abyei region.

Late last year Kiir and Bashir signed agreements to resolve most of these issues, but internal opposition from their respective militaries prevented implementation of the agreement. Bashir is reportedly ill with throat cancer, and younger northern generals (who have been promoted based on their loyalty to Islamist ideology and the ruling party rather than their competence) gave him an ultimatum to either give them control over policy on negotiations with the south or face military unrest (read a coup). Perhaps because of his failing health and weakened political position Bashir unwisely chose to give them control. These ambitious generals did not support the peace agreement between the two countries to begin with, have not traveled widely outside Sudan, have no diplomatic or political experience, and are extremely paranoid about any negotiations or agreements with the South Sudanese government as they believe the South is secretly supporting northern opposition groups. Many of the generals reportedly believed that the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood (their natural allies) in Tunisia and Egypt, and the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi (enemy of the Bashir government) from power in Libya would rescue them in Sudan. The problem with their calculation is that Muslim Brotherhood is in crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt, and in no position to help their friends in Khartoum.

The economies of both countries have sunk into severe economic crisis when oil revenues stopped a year ago: the South alone suffered a 55 percent decline in GDP in 2012. A hardline faction in South Sudan supported the shutdown of oil production believing that it would lead to the collapse of the Bashir government and the seizing of power by secular democratic parties: oil production did end, the economies are collapsing, but Bashir and his generals remain in power. The brinkmanship by both sides is dragging the two countries off the cliff simultaneously. A majority of the Southern people are subsistence agriculturalists and pastoralists who are unaffected by the shutdown of oil revenue, but the growing urban population is dependent on Southern government payroll to survive and face rising inflation, no paychecks, and hunger. In the north, inflation rages, the GDP is dropping, the Sudanese pound is depreciating, unemployment rising, and public employees are not getting paid. The two governments seem to be racing to see which of their economies collapses first which will affect the two political systems in profoundly different ways.

Politically, the ongoing conflict between the two countries, unites the South people which abhors the northern Arab government, religion, and culture more than their tribal rivals in the South, while the northern population is divided by the conflict. The Bashir government, the ruling party, and the Sudanese military have little remaining public support, only the brutal secret police and a divided northern democratic opposition have prevented an uprising from unseating the Bashir government. While the Bashir government is the weakest since independence traditional northern parties are morally and political bankrupt and been unable to unite behind a common leader as a creditable alternative to Bashir and his generals. Many northerners had great hope that the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (the Southern party which led the south for the past three decades and negotiated the peace agreement which ended the civil war) in its northern manifestation could have been that alternative, but have been disappointed.

For a year and a half now, Khartoum has been trying unsuccessfully to starve its regional and tribal opponents in the north into submission by stopping food from getting to the civilian population. When that tactic failed to stop growing opposition to Bashir and his generals, they reverted to their traditional practice of killing civilians which is much easier than defeating their military opponents. Just in the past few weeks the northern air force has resumed bombing of civilian population areas hostile to the Bashir government in Khartoum, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands. Most of the Sudanese air force is now made up of mercenaries from Iran, Egypt, and Russia, as Khartoum fears their own pilots will refuse to bomb civilian targets or could attempt a coup.

Last week in an effort to defuse the crisis, Salva Kiir held out an olive branch to the north by offering to withdraw Southern troops from the border an action that would clear the way for oil production to resume. The reaction of the northern generals will likely be to stonewall Kiir's offer by demanding more concessions while making none of their own. A month ago Kiir removed commanders en masse in the South's military who were preventing the peace agreement he reached with Bashir from being carried out—which was a very risky but wise decision. Southern patience is not endless, and the northern generals have overplayed their hand more than once in the negotiations. The U.S. position has been to act as a neutral mediator, which worked well when Bashir was running the country to get him to compromise, but now that the generals are calling the shots acting as a mediator has only empowered Bashir's generals to demand more Southern concessions. It is time for the United States to make clear to Khartoum that should they persist in their stonewalling tactics, the U.S. government will increase military assistance to the Sudan People's Liberation Army, including providing them with advanced weapons which would change the balance of military power between Sudan and South Sudan. At critical times in the past Omar al-Bashir has silenced the hardliners and sided with more moderate voices in Khartoum and negotiated with opposition groups in the north and the South rather than trying to bomb them into submission. Now is such a time.