Peace, of a Sort, Between the Sudans—but For How Long?

Sudan and South Sudan made an important step towards normalization today. But will it be enough to bring lasting trust between two longstanding enemies?

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South Sudan's President Kiir and his Sudan counterpart Bashir display a signed deal to delegates in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

The image that McClatchy reporter Alan Boswell tweeted today, from the front row of a signing ceremony for a long-awaited treaty between the governments of the Sudan and South Sudan, was a striking one. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's International Criminal Court-indicted dictator, shoots a quizzical and ever-so-scowling glance at former South African president and current African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, while South Sudanese president Salva Kiir stares impassively into an assembled crowd of reporters. The fact that these men are publicly seated mere feet from each other, on the occasion of a major treaty that will theoretically solve a raft of outstanding issues between the two neighboring countries, is remarkable on its own. But the tension is fairly obvious, and for good reason. The former enemies are patching up their differences--and with a number of potentially deal-breaking issues still unresolved, this treaty might turn out to be nothing more than a patching-up--because of hard economic and political necessities, and not out of the sense of idealism or regional responsibility upon which enduring inter-state peace is typically based.

Today's treaty is certainly a breakthrough for two countries that were recently at the brink of state collapse and all-out war. Under the agreement, both countries militaries must remain within 10 kilometers of the disputed inner Sudanese border. If adhered to, this newly-created demilitarized zone will greatly lower the regional temperature. In April, skirmishes between the two countries' militaries culminated in a Southern incursion into the disputed oil-rich region of Heglig, which is currently under northern control. It took quick diplomacy--and the threat of UN sanctions--to get both governments to back down. The new DMZ, and this new understanding between north and south, will hopefully prevent a similar, potentially-disastrous flare-up.

According to the BBC's James Copnall, the agreement will also ensure that border crossings between the two countries remain open. This is a humanitarian issue, in addition to a political one: northern blockades on legal cross-border trade have had the effect of driving up food prices along South Sudan's impoverished and chronically underdeveloped frontier. The agreement means that border access and freedom of movement will be less subject to the whims of the Khartoum government--at least theoretically.

Most importantly, the treaty resolves a long-simmering dispute over how South Sudan's oil wealth will be distributed. In 2011, Khartoum allowed the South to secede with the understanding that Bashir's government would receive up to $5.4 billion in compensation for the loss of 2/3rds of the country's oil--as well as a favorable cut of Southern oil revenues, which depend upon a pipeline that terminates in Port Sudan. In February, the South decided it would rather shut down its entire oil sector than pay $30 a barrel transit fees to the northern government, a levy that is nearly 15 times the market rate. Oil constitutes almost the entirety of South's government revenue--and nearly 50% of the North's, as well as 90% of its export revenue (see above link). The shutdown sent the North's already-tottering economy into a tailspin, forcing Bashir's embattled government to implement a range of unpopular austerity measures. The oil shutdown was a mutually-destructive gambit, and the South's fledgling government also pushed itself to the brink of bankruptcy in order to force its opponent's hand. The wisdom of such a tactic is debate, especially in a country with a weak state and a range of development and security challenges. But with today's treaty, the oil dispute at least appears to be over.

The enmity between North and South--which fought a 25-year civil war before 2005's Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and which became separate countries with the South's secession on July 9, 2011--remains. The treaty does not address the highly-contentious, oil-producing region of Abyei (an ethnically-mixed area whose major city the northern military practically leveled last year), the apparent result of Khartoum's rejection of an AU draft proposal that called for a referendum on the region's final status. More consequentially, the treaty doesn't resolve the ongoing war in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, polyglot Sudanese border regions where the local wing of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, the Southern militia group and political party that essentially became the government of the South Sudan after independence, is fighting the northern military--with the probable assistance of the government in Juba. The South Kordofan conflict is technically a civil war taking place within the borders of the Sudan. But it's had major consequences for the South Sudan, including a massive influx of refugees and a sense of instability that both sides have exploited. The conflict has also displaced or killed tens of thousands of non-Arab Sudanese, civilians belonging to ethnic groups who sided with the non-Arab South during the Sudan's long civil war. Even if today's treaty significantly lowers tensions between the Sudans, the conflict remains a gaping open wound, and a potential excuse for either side to ratchet up political or military pressure.

Even if the treaty had offered a comprehensive resolution to every issue remaining between the two sides, it would have come within an amorphous political context. Khartoum is facing a dire economic, political and security situation; meanwhile, the Southern government is dealing with a staggering corruption crisis. Neither party to the treaty is operating on particularly firm ground. The Sudans have an agreement that could reshape the dynamic between two longstanding enemies. Yet it is still an agreement built out of instability and mutual desperation, the sort of treaty that will not automatically bring trust--or even peace.