East Africa at the Brink: Hidden Hands behind Sudan’s Oil War
Once again Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir waved his walking stick in the air. Once again he spoke of splendid victories over his enemies as thousands of jubilant supporters danced and cheered. But this time around the stakes are too high.
An all out war against newly independent South Sudan might not be in Sudan’s best interest. South Sudan’s saber-rattling is not an entirely independent initiative; its most recent territorial transgressions - which saw the occupation of Sudan’s largest oil field in Heglig on April 10, followed by a hasty retreat ten days later – might have been a calculated move aimed at drawing Sudan into a larger conflict.
Stunted by the capture of Heglig, which, according to some estimates, provides nearly half of the country’s oil production, Bashir promised victory over Juba. Speaking to large crowd in the capital of North Kordofan, El-Obeid, Bashir affectively declared war. “Heglig isn't the end, it is the beginning,” he said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Bashir also declared a desire to ‘liberate’ the people of South Sudan from a government composed of ‘insects.’ Even when Heglig was declared a liberated region by Sudan’s defence minister, the humiliation of defeat was simply replaced by the fervor of victory. “They started the fighting and we will announce when it will end, and our advance will never stop,” Bashir announced on April 20.
Statements issued by the government of South Sudan are clearly more measured, with an international target audience in mind. Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, simply said that his forces departed the region following appeals made by the international community. This includes a statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which described the attack on Heglig as “an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal act” (Reuters, April 19). A day before the hasty withdrawal, South Sudan government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin claimed there had been no conflict in the first place. His statement was both bewildering and patronizing. He considered Sudan, which was then rallying for war to recapture its oil-rich area, a neighbor and “friendly nation”, and claimed that “up to now we have not crossed even an inch into Sudan” (Associated Press, April 19).
The fact remains, however, that wherever there is oil political narratives cannot possibly be so simple. Sudan is caught in a multidimensional conflict involving weapons trade, internal instabilities, multiple civil wars and the reality of outside players with their own interests. None of this is enough to excuse the readiness for war on behalf of Khartoum and Juba, but it certainly presents serious obstacles to any attempt aimed at rectifying the situation.
With a single act of aggression, a whole set of conflicts are prone to flaring up. It is the nature of proxy politics, as many armed groups seek opportunities for territorial advances and financial gains. News reports already speak of a possible involvement of Uganda should the fledging war between Khartoum and Juba cross conventional boundaries. “As the possibility of a full-fledged war became unnervingly higher, General Aronda Nyakairima, chief of Uganda’s defense forces, said that his army might be compelled to intervene if Bashir did overthrow South Sudan’s regime,” reported Alexis Okeowo in the New Yorker website (April 20). Both Sudans are fighting their own war against various rebel groups. Despite the lack of basic food in parts of the region, plenty of weapons effortlessly find inroads to wherever there is potential strife.
In a statement published last July, Amnesty International called on UN member states to control arm shipments to both Sudan and South Sudan. It accused the US, Russia and China of fueling violations in the Sudan conflict through the arms trade.
US support of South Sudan is already well known. “The US reportedly provided $100 million-a-year in military assistance to the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army),” according to Russia Today on April 19, citing a December 2009 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks.
According to political author and columnist Reason Wafawarova, US interest in South Sudan is neither accidental nor motivated by humanitarian issues. He told RT, “It would not be surprising if the US is trying to capitalize on the vulnerability of South Sudan in its efforts to establish the AFRICOM base somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.” RT goes on to reference Sudan’s Al-Intibaha newspaper for its reports on Israeli weapon supplies to Juba.
US and Israeli military support of Juba is not a new phenomenon. Sudan’s civil war (1983-2005), which cost an estimated 2.5 million lives, could not have lasted as long as it did without steady sources of military funding. And while the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the January 9-15, 2011 referendum, and finally the independence of South Sudan in July were all meant to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation, none actualized. Sudan’s territorial concessions proved most costly, and South Sudan, destroyed and landlocked, was ripe for outside exploitation.
Both countries are now caught in a deadly embrace. They can neither part ways completely, nor cooperate successfully without a risk of war at every turn. Bashir also knows he is running out of options. While Khartoum has already “lost three-quarters of its oil revenue after the secession,” according Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, “now it is poised to lose the rest.”
Naturally, a conflict of this magnitude cannot be resolved by empty gestures and reassuring statements. The conflict has been festering for decades, and war has been the only common language. Powerful countries, including the US, Russia, China, but also Israel and regional Arab and Africa players exploited the conflict to their advantage whenever possible. In a recent analysis, the International Crisis Group in Brussels advised that a “new strategy is needed to avert an even bigger crisis.” The crisis group recommends that the “UN Security Council must reassert itself to preserve international peace and security, including the implementation of border monitoring tasks as outlined by UN Interim Security Force in Abyei.”
Expecting the Security Council to act in political tandem seems a bit too optimistic, however. Considering that the US is arming and supporting South Sudan, and that Russia and China continue to support Khartoum, the rivalry in fact exists within the UN itself.
For a sustainable future peace arrangement, Sudan’s territorial integrity must be respected, and South Sudan must not be pushed to the brink of desperation. Rivalries between the US, China and Russia cannot continue at the expense of nations that teeter between starvation and civil wars. And whatever hidden hands that continue to exploit Sudan’s woes now need to be exposed and isolated.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).