Sudan and South Sudan say no to war, but violence continues

Core issues from South Sudan's independence from Sudan remain unresolved, like sharing oil revenue. But the current rhythm of fight, talk, fight, talk is unsustainable, says guest blogger.

Michael Onyiego/AP
South Sudanese Minister of Information Barnaba Benjamin Marial, right, and Military Spokesman Philip Aguer brief the media on Tuesday, March 27, in Juba, South Sudan about recent fighting between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces along the north-south border. The fighting has prompted Sudanese President Omar al Bashir to cancel his trip to Juba on April 3, derailing recent momentum in negotiations between the two countries.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

When South Sudan attained independence last July, core final status issues – namely oil revenue sharing formulas and border demarcation – remained unresolved between it and Sudan. Since that time, multiple rounds of talks have yielded more frustration than progress. Violence has occurred multiple times in the border areas, whether from the Sudanese government cracking down on alleged internal rebels or in the form of skirmishes between Sudan and South Sudan.

On Monday, violence, the worst yet, flared up again between Sudan and South Sudan, according to AFP. Fighting focused on the area around Heglig, an oil field that lies within Sudan’s borders.

Sudanese warplanes launched air raids on newly independent South Sudan, as the rival armies clashed in heavy battles. Both sides accuse the other of starting the fighting, the worst violence since South Sudan declared independence from Khartoum last July after decades of civil war.

The fighting has now ended, but perhaps not for long, according to Voice of America and the Sudan Tribune. The two sides are holding talks today in neighboring Ethiopia, reports Al Jazeera:

Mohamed Vall, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum said that talks would not be occurring at 'a high ministerial level.'

He further reported that it was commonplace for fighting to break out before rounds of negotiations, as 'whenever there is negotiation, and many things at stake, the two sides try to find a kind of bargain chip on the ground, something that shows that they are in control, that they are stronger on the ground.'

Using violence as a negotiating tactic is not new. But it is dangerous. Violence can escalate beyond what tactical planners anticipated. And it is costly, in lives, money, and time. Finally, in this case, it does not appear to be working – violence does not seem to have brought a settlement closer.

The two sides say they do not want war, which is of course good, but they also need resolution. I’ve seen several pieces lately with titles like “South Sudan’s Dreams Already Slipping Away,” by the LA Times. While I would say that South Sudan was always confronting terrible problems of poverty, political inclusion, corruption, internal violence, etc., it is also true that the events of the last nine months, particularly since South Sudan suspended oil production in January, have taken their toll. Sudan does not seem to be in great shape either, economically or politically. The current rhythm of fight, talk, fight, talk is unsustainable.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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