Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Sudan courts South Sudan

Does the opening of the border between Sudan and South Sudan represent a new chapter in relations between the two countries? Unfortunately, the omens bode ill, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Khartoum has rolled out the red carpet for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir several times since South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011. Yet the borders between the two countries remained closed since independence. That is, until last week.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir reiterated that Khartoum has a vital interest in a peaceful, well-ordered South Sudan. It is in this context that Bashir ordered the opening of his country’s border with landlocked South Sudan for the first time since the South’s secession in 2011.

Bashir claims that the move will boost economic ties between the two nations. The problem is that much of the border is a no-man’s land of rugged terrain controlled primarily by the armed opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).

The move comes against a grim backdrop. The Sudanese government and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) overtures towards South Sudan have prompted suggestions that Khartoum could act soon to ease policy restrictions with South Sudan further. All this suggests a rapprochement between Khartoum and Juba.

Sudan cannot become a holding pen for migrants from South Sudan, or Darfur for that matter. Indeed, the Darfur conundrum is complicating relations between Sudan and South Sudan. The administrative status in Darfur is not yet settled. There is still a far-fetched possibility that the people of Darfur may well decide to secede after a referendum, like their brethren in South Sudan.

The Darfur Referendum Commission (DRC) was established precisely to resolve this question once and for all. There is much squabbling over who will pay, for referendums are costly as far as poor countries are concerned.

Sudan has no option but to contemplate crude measures to placate both the armed opposition and separatist groups in Darfur as well as South Sudan. Sudan has long been accused of meddling in the domestic affairs of South Sudan. And Khartoum should be under no illusion over how politically dangerous the sealing of the porous border with South Sudan would be.

The Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) was a beginning and Qatar has been investing heavily in Sudan to buttress the economy of its ideological soul mate in Khartoum. Both Qatar and Sudan are Islamist in orientation. This is forcing Darfur armed opposition groups to consider more drastic action. What the Qataris are banking on is that Darfur is predominantly Muslim while South Sudan isn’t. Indeed, Darfur was one of the first kingdoms in Africa south of the Sahara to adopt Islam as a state religion.

With or without Qatari economic assistance, the Sudanese government should be concerned about the underlying imbalances in the Sudanese economy that will make it vulnerable to capital flight, should Darfur, too, opt to split from Sudan. It is in this context that the head of the NCP secretariat for Darfur, Al-Daw Al-Faki, vowed to strengthen ties with certain opposition groups in Darfur less hostile to Khartoum. The bulk of the Sudanese army, the rank and file as opposed to the top-notch officers, are from Darfur.

It all sounds very auspicious. The national dialogue conference will discuss the current territorial administrative division and has requested to postpone the referendum that was supposed to be held “no sooner than one year” after the signing of the DDPD. But then what to do with the non-signatories of the Doha framework agreement?

The agreement does not directly impact the restoration of strict border controls between Sudan and South Sudan, that in any case is out of the question. What is not clear is whether the long border between Darfur and South Sudan will come under the new arrangements with regards to the opening of the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Darfur, after all is considered by Sudan to be an integral part of the country.

Some South Sudanese believe that the opening of the borders between the two countries would give Sudan a strategic stranglehold on South Sudan. Also, last week Al-Bashir acquiesced to cut transit fees for South Sudanese oil crossing Sudan’s territory via pipelines to the Red Sea, long a bone of contention between the two countries.

“This is a positive move in a right direction ... and will lead to the normalisation of our relations with Sudan,” said Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan’s government spokesman.

“We hope that South Sudan takes its helping hand away from rebel movements that are against our government in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan,” Sudan’s information minister, Ahmed Bilal Osman, told Reuters. This, indeed, is the crux of the matter.

The challenge has been exacerbated by the lack of a census. Nobody knows the exact population of Darfur, nor Sudan and South Sudan for that matter. There are tentative estimates, of course. According to the latest census, the inhabitants of Darfur region are estimated at 12 million people, including five million internal and external migrants.

In a separate, but related development, the SPLM-N has stepped up military activity in South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces. The two provinces border South Sudan and are considered largely loyal to the SPLM-N. A Sudanese government “Antonov warplane dropped 10 high explosive barrel bombs on Malken, Ullu and Alrom villages, west of Bau County in Blue Nile state on 28 January”, claimed the SPLM-N this week. Be that as it may, the SPLM-N announced this week that it has repelled attacks by Sudanese government forces in Blue Nile province.

The Sudanese government and the SPLM-N failed to reach a negotiated solution to end the four-year conflict in Blue Nile. SPLM-N leader Yasser Arman attended peace talks with Sudanese government officials in Berlin. The African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) is trying to mediate between the Sudanese government and the SPLM-N.

Formal negotiations organised by the AUHIP were hosted by the German government on 22-23 January. But to the many questions on the table, few answers have been forthcoming. The SPLM-N is particularly concerned about the Sudanese government’s control of humanitarian access and the weakness of the UN institutions in Sudan.

The anger of the SPLM-N is largely justified as the Sudanese government is adopting a scorched-earth policy in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The SPLM-N recently called for radical reforms in the current army and in its military doctrine and Islamist ideological orientation.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese economy is in a deepening crisis due largely to the ongoing wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. With the intensification of fighting in these regions, and with contingency planning gimmicks such as opening the border with South Sudan, a move designed to bolster investor confidence, no bailout by Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf Arab nations will help in the long term. The Sudanese government has denied anything is afoot, but evidence on the ground suggests otherwise.

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