From Victim to (Mutual) Aggressor: South Sudan's Disastrous First Year

The new African country, founded in part to escape from the northern government's violence, is showing some hostility of its own.

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South Sudanese soldiers drive in a truck near the front line in Panakuach, Unity state. / Reuters

Some wars have a self-evident logic to them. When U.S. troops first set foot in Afghanistan, there was little doubt about why they were there or what they wanted to do. But the fighting between The Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan, which reached official "war" status when Khartoum formally declared war on its southern neighbor on April 19, belongs to a different category of armed conflict. It's more like Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia, or Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon, the end product of a long series of calculations and miscalculations, internal politics and external pressures, suspicions legitimate and imagined -- a war launched on its own uncontrollable momentum.

Still, this conflict, which has cooled in the few days since the UN Security Council demanded that both sides cease hostilities and enter into negotiations, could have been prevented. When I visited South Sudan in mid-March, knowledgeable individuals described war between the north and south as a serious, though not inevitable, prospect. A non-Arab Sudanese rebel group known as the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North -- which Khartoum sees as aided by South Sudan -- is fighting the northern army in South Kordofan, Sudan. If the rebels had made dramatic enough gains, one U.S. official had earlier speculated to me, the northern government might attack the South in response. A South Sudanese government official told me that Khartoum wanted to go to war, or at least wanted to appear willing to go to war, in order to pressure the South into making concessions during ongoing negotiations over oil revenues. Ethnic conflict in Jonglei and Unity States, two provinces in South Sudan, risked throwing much of the new nation into the sort of chaos that the regime in Khartoum, still smarting from the loss of over a third of its territory, was likely to exploit. Abyei and other disputed areas were mentioned as possible flashpoints, but in all of my conversations with officials, scholars, consultants, and civil society figures, the name Heglig -- the oil-producing border region that southern troops entered on April 10, sparking the current crisis -- was never mentioned. There had even been a recent, diplomatic thaw. Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was scheduled to visit Juba on April 3 for a presidential-level summit. A soccer match between youth clubs from the countries' capital cities would even mark the occasion (the summit was canceled on March 26, when border flare-ups began).

So how did it get to this point? From one perspective, the war is the end result of a complex of unresolved issues between north and south. The status of Abyei, a disputed, oil-producing, and mostly non-Arab city that the northern military practically leveled and depopulated in the summer of 2011, is still undecided. The south has a sizable oil industry that is dependent on northern infrastructure. In January, the Southern government responded to punitively high transit costs imposed by the north -- as well as evidence that Khartoum was siphoning oil away from the north-south pipeline without compensating the southern government -- by shutting down its entire oil sector. Somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 southern refugees from the Sudan's 23-year long civil war still live in Khartoum, and their status has yet to be determined.

Though the two Sudans had gone through the motions of multilateral negotiations, over time, the South became convinced that the north wasn't negotiating in good faith. It is easy to see why officials in Juba believed that military action was a viable means of changing Khartoum's calculus. Arguably, Khartoum's declaration of war was a formality, an official confirmation of the already war-like posture that Bashir has taken towards his southern neighbor since it became independent last July.

After Juba shut down the country's oil production in January, Khartoum bombed oil wells inside of Southern territory. In November, northern Antonov cargo planes dropped bombs on Yida, a refugee camp for civilians fleeing South Kordofan, that is clearly inside of southern territory. The northern military mounted attacks on several border cities, including Jao and Teshwin, which is near Heglig. And in April, Khartoum moved to strip over 750,000 southern refugees of their citizenship, reneging on an agreement reached just days earlier.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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