Negotiate with both hands
There is no excuse for inciting further carnage on either side of Sudanese borders, affirms Asmaa El-Husseini
"We will fight with one hand and negotiate with the other," said Idris Abdel-Qader, Sudan's chief negotiator, at the beginning of another round of talks sponsored by the African Union in Addis Ababa. The talks cover most of the unresolved issues that a much smaller Sudan is negotiating with South Sudan, the new country on its southern borders. South Sudan seceded from the north in July 2011, but the two countries have so far failed to resolve their differences over borders, oil revenues, and the status of their nationals who continue to live on the "wrong" side of the borders.
For a while, the ruling regimes in the north and the south promised their people a future of peace and prosperity. The promises now ring hollow as fighting resumed in border areas.
Hostilities are not confined to one part of what used to be a united country. Fighting is taking place in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Rebels in both areas have joined forces with the Darfur insurgents, forming what they call the "Revolutionary Front". The latter has declared its intention to bring down the Khartoum regime. The Sudanese government in Khartoum has accused the South Sudanese government in Juba of masterminding the whole thing, while Juba accuses the northerners of supporting rebels south of the borders.
Until recently, the war between Khartoum and Juba was conducted by proxy. But for the past week, forces of the two countries have met in battles across the borders. Juba says that Khartoum keeps sending planes to bombard its territories. And Khartoum says that Juba is sending troops to attack South Kordofan and to occupy oil areas.
The recent bout of fighting led to the cancellation of a summit between Presidents Omar Al-Bashir and Salva Kiir. The fighting is in violation of a framework agreement which the two countries signed of late, and observers say that a full-fledged war cannot be ruled out.
Despite the clashes, Khartoum and Juba sent negotiators to Addis Ababa in an attempt to contain the situation. It is hard to be optimistic about the talks, considering the growing mistrust between the two sides.
Both governments know that renewed war will be costly, especially considering that thousands of their nationals still live in the wrong countries. There are nearly 70,000 southern Sudanese living in the north, who may be deported if the two countries failed to reach agreement. There are thousands of northern cattle owners who depend on pasture land in South Sudan for living. Those cattle owners live for nearly eight months every year in what is now South Sudan, and they will face immense hardship if the borders are closed.
Closing the borders is not going to be easy, negotiators on both sides know. The two countries have 2,000 kilometres of borders that are hard to monitor and harder to patrol.
In other areas of Sudan, humanitarian conditions are worsening. International organisations have asked Khartoum to open safe corridors for relief convoys to reach South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The Khartoum government declined to do so for fear that relief supplies would strengthen the hand of the rebels. According to relief experts, these two areas may be faced with famine in the foreseeable future.
As both countries prepare for war, tensions have run high. Most of the Sudanese, on both sides of the borders, are tired of war. But their views don't seem to have much of a bearing on the current course of events.
Fighting with one hand and negotiating with the other doesn't seem to be the answer. The two countries must find a better way of handling the situation, for the coming war is going to be much worse than what the Sudanese have experienced in recent memory.
An agreement on the distribution of oil resources will have to be reached, either in this round of talks or in a future one. But this situation is not just about oil. It is about the horror that the Sudanese will have to endure unless the current crisis is defused. For now, the governments of Khartoum and Juba are whipping up local sentiments instead of addressing their own domestic problems. If they continue to act so callously, their people, on both sides of the borders, will pay the price -- just as they had in the past. A word of advice to both Khartoum and Juba: try negotiating with both hands (and both heads).