USIP’s Jon Temin discusses the recent clashes and ongoing tensions between South Sudan and Sudan – and what can be done to prevent more violence.

March 29, 2012

USIP’s Jon Temin discusses the recent clashes and ongoing tensions between South Sudan and Sudan – and what can be done to prevent more violence.

Q: The armies of Sudan and South Sudan have directly engaged one another in recent days, with Sudanese military aircraft flying over South Sudan and with South Sudanese troops entering Sudan. What does this mean? Is another war starting between the North and the South?

Tensions between Sudan and South Sudan are at their highest point since the south seceded in July 2011. Even so, a return to full-scale war, along the lines of the hugely destructive two civil wars, seems unlikely. Both countries face very difficult economic circumstances, exacerbated by the shutdown of South Sudanese oil production in January. The cost of war would only add to the economic hardship, limiting both governments’ service delivery and patronage and thus further agitating already frustrated populations. There seems to be little desire for a return to war among the general populations who suffered greatly during the civil wars – though whether this sentiment is shared by both countries’ leadership is a different question. In each capital there are hawks who may be inclined toward further fighting for narrow purposes.

A major question now is whether the leaders of both countries, especially President Bashir in Sudan, can resist extremist influences and pull back from the violence of the past few days. There is some evidence that is occurring, but with the two armies so close to one another (reportedly only 500 meters apart in some areas), the environment remains combustible.

Q: How can violence be prevented and what do your foresee happening next?

To end the continuous ebb and flow of violence that we have seen for months now – particularly around the shared border – two things need to happen.

First, Sudan and South Sudan need to conclude seemingly endless negotiations on “post-referendum arrangements,” which include oil sector management, dealing with Sudan’s debt, and the status of South Sudanese living in Sudan and vice versa. Those negotiations, facilitated by an African Union panel, have made little progress over the past year, though there was a short-lived sense of an improved negotiating atmosphere recently, which is now likely gone. Second, within Sudan the status and governance of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, which border South Sudan and are currently racked by internal rebellion, must be resolved. The primary rebel movement in those two states – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North – has long been linked to South Sudan, but also fights on behalf of some Sudanese (especially ethnic Nuba) who have been marginalized for decades. Until there are negotiated solutions to these two strands, a de-escalation in tensions is unlikely. Unfortunately there is little reason to believe that ongoing negotiations will reach successful conclusions any time soon, and they have surely been set back by the recent fighting.


Q: Will there be a presidential peace summit?

Sudan’s President Bashir and South Sudan’s President Kiir were scheduled to meet in Juba next week to discuss, in particular, the post-referendum arrangements, but the meeting now appears to be on hold, if not cancelled.

Expectations for the summit were high, but there was a similar meeting between the presidents in January that produced little, so there is no guarantee that the next meeting, whenever it occurs, will lead to a breakthrough. Given strong international condemnation of the recent fighting I wouldn’t be surprised if the summit is cobbled back together, though possibly to be held in Ethiopia (perceived neutral territory), not South Sudan. But whether the two presidents have the political space to make deals remains the key variable. Past agreements, including a recent, encouraging agreement on citizenship issues, have been harshly criticized by domestic constituencies, particularly in Sudan.

If the presidents and their negotiators are fearful of how any agreements will be received at home, their ability to compromise suffers, as do the chances of reaching a satisfactory outcome.

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