Is More War Coming to the Sudans?

South Sudan, which became the world’s newest independent state in July of last year, is a country forged in conflict, the result of over two decades of war between the autocratic, Arab-led government of the Republic of Sudan and a tenacious, non-Arab militia movement based in the country’s marginalized and resource-rich south. But the 350,000 civilians threatened by the ongoing war in the Nuba Mountains, a majority non-Arab region in the north’s Southern Kordofan state, attest to the fact that even a hard-won political settlement hasn’t been enough to bring peace to the two Sudans.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended more than 20 years of war between Sudan’s Arab-governed north and its non-Arab (and mostly non-Muslim) south. The treaty mandated a five-year window between the end of the conflict and a southern referendum on independence, essentially giving the north an opportunity to convince traumatized and war-weary southerners that unity was in their best interests. Yet the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement made a crucial concession in the CPA, agreeing that Southern Korodfan and Blue Nile—two states with large Arab and non-Arab populations—would remain in northern territory if South Sudan voted to become an independent nation. Now, the northern wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-N), a remnant of the same militia that helped win the south’s freedom, is mired in an ugly continuation of the north-south war. The northern government in Khartoum has answered an SPLM-N insurgency with a brutal campaign that threatens to devastate the civilian population in the Nuba Mountains.

In November, the SPLM-N joined with the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of militant groups representing the country’s marginalized non-Arab citizens. The SRF’s apparent aim is to overthrow Sudanese dictator (and accused war criminal) Omar al-Bashir. The question now is whether South Sudan will abandon its former comrades—and whether the fledgling government understands that it can’t aid a rebel movement in a country with which stable relations is nothing less than an existential imperative.

In South Sudan’s capital, Juba, I met with Cirino Hiteng Ofuho, one of the authors of the 2005 treaty and a cabinet-level minister in the government of President Salva Kiir. He denied that his government was capable of aiding the SPLM-N, and said that claims of material support to the SPLM-N were “just rumors, assumptions.”

“We do have financial problems, you know,” he told me. “What sort of resources are we going to get to support Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan?”

Ofuho’s answer cuts in the opposite direction, though. If the southern government is too strapped to help its brothers in the Nuba Mountains, it also lacks the capability or even the willingness to police its fractious northern frontier. The SPLM-N are present on both sides of the border area around the disputed town of Jau, and so far the northern government has seized on any excuse to strike inside southern territory. In November, Antonovs (Soviet aircraft commonly used by the north) bombed the Yida refugee camp, which is just inside southern territory, and two weeks ago northern jets destroyed two oil wells in Unity State. Just yesterday, a northern official accused Juba of aiding the rebel forces.

Efram Wany Peter, an official in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, said that the attacks were a clear invitation to war. “The bombing of the border was to lure us for a war, which we don’t want,” he says. “[The north] will use it as a pretext and they will begin bombing the [oil] pipelines and we will all lose. So we must be very careful on that.”

Ofuho was careful to note that under the 2005 agreement, Southern  Korodfan is an internal northern issue. “The issue is justice for the people of the Sudan in general,” he says. “There has to be some restructuring of power in Khartoum in opening up space for democratic processes. But the Nuba Mountains and Southern Kordofan are no longer the problem of the south.” It might not remain that way for long, particularly if the Sudan Revolutionary Front makes significant headway before the upcoming rainy season. The SPLM-N already controls about 70 percent of the Nuba Mountains. If Bashir senses that the SPLM-N’s former allies are capable of threatening the very existence of his regime, it’s hard to imagine him easing up on his southern neighbor.


Or on Southern Kordofan. In Juba, there is talk among those familiar with the ongoing situation in the Nuba Mountains that Bashir is now in the process of mobilizing 21 brigades from the Popular Defense Force for service in South Khordofan. The PDF are government-organized irregulars, similar in nature to the Janjaweed, who committed many of the worst atrocities in Darfur. So far, army regulars and Antonov cargo planes have done most of the fighting against the SPLM-N in Southern Kordofan. When major combat resumes after the rainy season, that may no longer be the case, and the Kordofan conflict might start resembling the fully ethnicized, scorched-earth counterinsurgency that terrorized Darfur between 2003 and 2006. Wany, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs official I spoke with, believes that the conflict has already reached this point. “They want to eradicate them all out, which will not work,” he said of Bashir’s policy toward the Nuba Mountains. “Bashir … keeps on declaring jihad or holy war, and it gives no space for any group to follow the Arab Spring process.”

Even before the conflict is outsourced to militias, the prospects for the Nubans are grim. The northern government is not allowing humanitarian aid or human rights observers into the Nuba Mountains. Fighting has greatly reduced the annual harvest, and in a couple of months, many Nuban civilians will be faced with the grim choice of either taking their chances with the Antonovs, the PDF, and their depleted food stocks, or beginning a long and dangerous walk south.

For the government in Juba, the Kordofan conflict is simply one of a vast range of crises, real and potential, threatening their relations with Khartoum. A recent, government-mandated shutoff of South Sudan’s oil wells—which began when the southern government was faced with evidence that the north was siphoning off oil without paying for it, while also charging extortionate transit fees—is depleting government coffers in Juba and Khartoum both. The southern government depends on oil for 98 percent of its revenue. It is never encouraging when an already-poor nation must announce sweeping austerity measures nine months into its existence, as the south did this month. Indeed, every day of the shutdown represents roads that can’t be paved, schools that can’t be built, and expectations that can’t be met.

On top of the oil standoff, the status of another disputed border region, Abyei, remains undetermined, and the northern government badly wants to rid itself of the 200,000 to 800,000 southern refugees living on the outskirts of its capital city. North-south tensions play out in smaller yet no less pernicious ways as well: until three weeks ago, the northern government had maintained a ban on trade into Northern Bar el-Ghazal state in northwestern South Sudan, causing a spike in food prices in one of the poorest regions in the country.

Ofuho, the cabinet minister I spoke with, understands that the north and south cannot do away with their geographical proximity, and that normalized relations are the only real option for the former adversaries. “The best is just to live like US and Canada,” he says of the ideal relations between Juba and Khartoum. But as long as the SPLA’s former allies can credibly threaten to topple the northern government, the Nuba crisis will make other, no less urgent issues more difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

For many South Sudanese, there’s a cruel irony to the north’s centrality in the new nation’s political and economic life. As Rapdit Mangur, a southern music producer I met in Juba, explained to me, the north was “more than an enemy” to him, and he longed for the day when Khartoum would simply become irrelevant to his country. “They didn’t want peace here. When South Sudan was going to get independence, they said these people cannot manage themselves. That was a lie,” he said. “We want to see if we can survive without any help from them.” Among South Sudanese like Mangur, there’s a longing for the true independence that was promised to them. But if the events of the past few months have revealed anything, it’s that the two Sudans will be entangled for a long time to come.


Armin Rosen is freelance writer based in New York.


Photo Credit: Steve Evans

OG Image: