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Will new talks between Sudan and South Sudan end oil dispute?

In January, South Sudan cut off oil production, accusing its northern neighbor of stealing its oil. Now the African Union is aiming to settle things down.

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Khartoum, for its part, desperately needs transit fees from all that southern oil to help keep its own economy going, and to pay for the enormous government bureaucracy that it has built up to govern what was once the largest country in Africa. Diplomatically, it needs to resolve its conflicts with South Sudan and with its western Darfur region in order to have a hope of restoring relations with the international community. Heavy economic sanctions against Khartoum’s leaders – imposed both for allegations of Sudan’s support for terror groups and also charges of war crimes and genocide in the Darfur dispute – have prevented Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir from accessing foreign investment.

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But sometimes countries don’t do what is in their long-term self-interest. And while the US and the African Union are struggling to prevent a full-scale war, it doesn’t take full-scale war to create a full-scale humanitarian disaster.

Presently, more than half a million civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states are displaced and lacking access to food. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS-NET) has warned that famine is possible if emergency measures aren’t taken to provide food assistance to the displaced, but Khartoum has denied international aid groups access into South Kordofan and Blue Nile, saying they are internal matters.

Aside from those displaced from borderland conflict zones, there are an additional 700,000 South Sudanese living within northern Sudan, and the International Organization for Migration says it is struggling to help those who want to repatriate down south before Khartoum’s deadline of April 9.

Dividing Sudan into two countries was always going to be difficult. The 2005 Sudan Peace Accords, signed in Naivasha, Kenya, anticipated several potential problems and offered creative solutions. But as the Monitor reported in June 2011, “public consultations” that were intended to give Sudanese citizens a voice about their future in the disputed borderline states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile were never held. Some members of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, allied with the South Sudan government, saw the consultations as a mini-referendum for possible secession. Armed conflict broke out before a vote was taken.

Khartoum, which has just completed talks with Mr. Lyman on a recent visit, says it will continue to study the African Union’s suggested mediation plan. But the ruling party in Khartoum, the National Congress Party, dismissed any diplomatic intervention by the United States.

“We don’t trust them and their positions,” said NPC officer for mobilization Haj Majid Suwar said in press statements on Sunday. The US “promised prior to the signing of Naivasha agreement (the 2005 peace accords) to remove Sudan’s name from terror list and cancelling sanctions on it but has not delivered and repeated the same behavior in Abuja agreement and backed down on its obligations.”

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