South Sudan and Sudan: On the Brink

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has refused to withdraw his country’s troops from a disputed border region with neighbouring Sudan, heightening fears of a full-scale conflict between the nations.

In fact South Sudan was reported to have consolidated its position in the oil-rich border town of Heglig, which both sides claim but which is on Sudan’s side of the border. Sudan operates Heglig’s oil facilities, which account for nearly half of the north’s daily production.

Troops from South Sudan’s SPLA army attacked and captured Heglig on April 11th, which is claimed by Sudan. Mr Kiir told parliament the SPLA would also re-enter another disputed area, Abyei, which is occupied by Sudan, if the United Nations does not urge Sudan to withdraw. Heglig is 60 miles east of the disputed region of Abyei, whose fate was left unresolved when South Sudan split from Sudan in 2011. Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir accused South Sudan of seeking war and vowed to retake Heglig which is in the South Kordofan area.

The military advance by South Sudan into territory it claims, but is internationally recognised as Sudan’s, brought swift condemnation from the United States and Britain. Along with the UN Security Council and the African Union, they urged South Sudan to withdraw from the town of Heglig and condemned the bombings of South Sudan territory by Sudan. The UN also called on Al-Bashir and Kiir to “meet immediately” in order to compensate for a summit they were supposed to hold on 3 April but which was cancelled by Khartoum following earlier fighting. Al Jazeera carried an analysis of the background and impact of conflict between the two Sudans. It reported that South Sudan had rejected the calls to withdraw and set conditions – including that Sudan leave Abyei – before it would do so. The Sudan Tribune also asked if the two Sudans were now definitively moving towards a “catastrophic war”.

Unresolved Issues

South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011, has been locked in a bitter dispute with Khartoum over many issues, including:

  • The border regions – the borders have not been clearly marked
  • The status of Abyei, where 30% of oil exports originate
  • Citizenship
  • Oil Payments – 75% of the oil is produced in South Sudan but it has to travel through Sudan to be exported and talks to agree on transit fees have broken down.

Oil Production Cut

In January South Sudan made the radical decision to entirely cut oil production because of the impasse over transit fees and also because it accused Sudan of stealing the oil. This was despite the fact that oil accounts for a staggering 98% of South Sudan’s revenue. It is now surviving on oil reserves and international loans, a situation that is not sustainable.

The shutdown of oil production exacerbates conditions in South Sudan, which has some of the worst development indicators in the world, particularly in health and education. Eight out of 10 people live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day, six out of every 10 have no access to any healthcare, and the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world (2,054 per 100,000 live births). It recently halved its budget for 2012.

Subscribe to the Africa Research Bulletin today